Ever heard of Cree, Inc.?  It's a 4,500-person company that manufactures basic component LEDs, like chips and modules, which it sells to distributors who incorporate them into their products (digital cameras, flashlights, work lamps, etc.).  You still awake?  Stay with us. This company has more than 1,500 Twitter followers and 1,000 Facebook fans.

What's the secret?

Cree started a campaign last September called Lighting the LED Revolution, which markets itself as leaders of the revolution toward energy-efficient lighting.  Its followers, in exchange for being online fans, have pledges to sign, videos to watch, before-and-after pictures to marvel at, and free lighting to win.  In essence, Cree has given its audience a consistent, and interesting, message to stand behind.  Surreptitiously facilitating these hundreds of comments and thousands of page hits is one woman.  Her name is Ginny Skalski, and she is Cree's social media Specialist.

"I like to tell people I'm the Social Media Butterfly, but that hasn't seemed to stick," she said.

Specialist, butterfly, consultant, or the like, Ginny is an example of a social media "guru," a word the dictionary defines as an "influential expert," in a field that's evolving very rapidly.  The Web is a difficult space to navigate, let alone find a profitable niche in, without marketing sensibilities and an inherent Internet fluency.  Twitter, Facebook, and various blogging sites could be effective tools for your business, whether you're a dry cleaner, a food truck, or a  LED manufacturer.  Even better, these tools are free. Hiring someone with the know-how to run your social media campaign, however, is not free. When is it worth investing in a guru that'll help you work the cyber world?

Hiring a Social Media Specialist: Don't Fall for the "Shiny Object" Syndrome

Beth Harte is the Client Services Director at Serengeti, a consultancy based in McLean, Virginia, that helps companies establish digital marketing programs.  Like many of today's media gurus, Harte has more than just a day job: she also blogs on multiple sites, teaches at Immaculata University, and speaks at conferences, primarily about the intersection of marketing, public relations, and social media.  She believes strongly that social media has to be part of a larger business or marketing strategy.  "It's a communication aspect that you need to be in for the long haul," she says. "Campaigns that dive right in and push their products out at people are not usually successful."

Hence, the first rule of thumb: Before you start anything, do your research.  For two or three months, closely monitor your industry and your consumers.  Harte suggests free tools like Google Alerts, which updates you whenever there's activity on the Internet – blogs, websites, and news ports - related to any given search term. Sign up for results for your company name (make sure to type the name in quotes), the names of your competition, and maybe words relating to your industry. Are you an interior design firm?  Sign up for alerts for terms like "interior design trends," "interior design industry," and "best interior design." This will give you an idea of what your potential customers and competitors are talking about.  If you're willing to make a small investment, sites like Radian6 (on which services cost $500/month and up) is more focused, offering you a wide variety of tools, like data organizing options and trend graphs of terms mentioned over a period of time.

"See what people are talking about, and who's doing the talking," Harte says. "They may be talking about your product. They may be talking about your industry as a whole, but not individual products. This can help you plan."

Skalski was taken on as an employee after Cree had hired a social media firm to create their strategy.  The first thing she did upon starting their social campaign was quiet, subtle, and made a lot of difference: she stopped the press release feed on their under-established Twitter page and began to follow users she thought mattered. "I got a list of our customers and started following the ones who had Twitter accounts, and went on looking for anybody I felt could ultimately help us spread our message, to see what they were talking about," she says. "Other companies, bloggers, and people interested in energy saving as a whole."

You may find that your potential customers, or people in your industry, aren't interested in social media tools at all. This information is also incredibly useful. "If you do that research and find out that nobody in that industry is using social media, why use it?" Harte says.  This will save you time and money later on.

Dig Deeper: Four Ways to Master Social Media Marketing

Hiring a Social Media Specialist: Identify Your Goals

What's the end result you'd like to see here?  Is it direct sales or simply brand awareness? Cree was looking for brand awareness.  Cree lighting is five or six steps removed from a sellable product, which goes into the hands of various manufacturers and distributors before those of a consumer.  It initially focused on targeting architects and contractors, to remind them that LED lighting was an option in their construction. "We're trying now to reach anyone who interacts with light, because it relates to everyone," Skalski says.  In 2012, an incandescent ban begins in the United States.  When companies are looking to change their lighting options, individuals will hopefully remember Cree, the company hopes. "We don't have to make the whole site about us and our product," she says, "because ultimately we're not trying to get people ordering our lights.  So we can focus on the education process, letting people know that LED lighting is ready, our underlying message being that we make the best LED. This has allowed for the engagement we've been seeing."

However, it's far more common for a company to just hope for the ability to boost its direct sales. Just as Ginny pinpointed architects and contractors, any company should use their research to find their best potential audience, and the influencers within that group. If a fabric company's measurable objectives are to sell 2,000 yards of fabric by the end of the year, then their social media guru should focus on finding that community who will buy it: fashion students, stay-at-home moms, interior designers, etc.  Your job as a business owner is to know, and specify your goals. Your social media manager's job is to find great customers and influencers, and cultivate the relationship. Soon, they can begin offering tangible items, like, say, special coupons and sewing workshops, which will directly boost your business.

Says Harte, "If you know what goals you're striving toward, you'll know the right strategy or tactic. No sense on spending money on YouTube videos if the people you're targeting aren't watching them."

Dig Deeper: How to Use Internet Market Research Tools

Hiring a Social Media Specialist: Set a

Now that you know your potential audience as well as your goals, it's time to decide how much effort (think: time, money) you should invest in online exposure. Here are your three options:

1. DIY: set up the social media tools yourself, and distribute the responsibility to your current employees.  Unless you're a social media guru yourself, this option could quite likely be a recipe for failure.  Primarily, explains Harte, it's hard to join the social media world if you don't know the language. "Folks on social media can be a very picky bunch.  It's important to understand the basic etiquette. You wouldn't walk into a party and promote your business, because people would think it's rude. It's the same online." Additionally, poor execution can have the opposite effect – having a Twitter feed of press releases looks unprofessional and out of date – not to mention a waste of your employees' time.

2. Hire a consultant. Hiring a strategy firm to set up your tools and teach you maintenance techniques can be highly effective.  The investment isn't too big, because it's temporary.  Additionally, strategy and consulting firms often already have the resources needed to make your social media sites successful.  However, you need to make sure you can commit to maintaining your online presence once they leave.  Once the initiative's put in place, can you effectively keep the conversation going?

3. Hire a full-time employee. The last, and most effective, option is to take on a staff member dedicated to work exclusively toward your online media goals.  Although this is the priciest option (a full-time or part-time salary's worth), hire a good one and you can be assured that your goals will be met.  Skalski says that maintaining Cree's presence gave her the opportunity to take the skeleton of the strategy and be able to mold it, continuously, to garner more audience interest.

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Hiring a Social Media Specialist: Find Your Guru

The last step is to find the best social media guru for the job you want done. Here are Harte's rules to know which ones you can trust.

1. They're marketers to the core. "If they lead off the conversation with tools, that's not a good sign," she says. "Any good consultant should understand marketing, PR, and business strategy." Is your to-be specialist throwing around buzzwords like Twitter, Tumblr, Yelp, and Groupon?  Run away. A good media guru should be well aware of step one: research comes before blogging.

2. They're realistic, and mindful that time is money. "A good one will tell you there's no magic bullet," she says.  "This work is not scalable. If someone's offering you a box of chocolate, it's an indication that they don't understand that it's time consuming to prepare a company for the long run. While tools are free, time is not."  Although your potential guru should have a plan, that plan should not include tangible dates for overnight results, because the Web is not a socially reliable sphere.

3. They understand how to effectively "do business on their own playground."  It doesn't matter whether your guru is old or young, with a business or a bachelor's degree, or an expert or novice in the company's field.  Harte says that "it's a matter of who understands people and relations the best," and knows how to employ their strengths in a sphere that people generally use to socialize.  Skalski, for example, does not have a background in LED lighting or energy efficiency.  "If you find someone with the skills who knows how to build and communicate with a community, that can work better than hiring someone simply because they're in the industry," she suggests.

Dig Deeper: How to Hire 

Hiring a Social Media Specialist: Take a Deep Breath. Relax.

A social media guru is becoming a very standard new need, but not one that has to overwhelm you.  Once you've determined your goals, set your budget and found your guru, it's time to refocus on your product or service.  Ideally, your guru will effectively find and fill your niche in the social cyber world.