Where To Draw The Line With A Social Media Agency

by · August 30, 201210 comments

An agent is an entity that acts on your behalf.  When you are hiring a social media agency, you are hiring someone to provide any of a range of services for you that you either don’t have the time or the ability to handle.  In other business matters, you may hire a lawyer or an accountant to handle matters you are not capable of dealing with.  No one can be an expert in everything.

But in our interpersonal relationships we rarely hire agents.  You can’t very well hire someone to discipline your child or date for you or grow your social circle.  Well, in some cases you can, I suppose, but long-term your not being in the relationship becomes an issue.

So if social media more closely replicates personal, rather than business relationships, where do you draw the line with the work you hire out?

Agencies are ideal for handling work that is campaign-based.

Short-term projects require short-term help.  Longer term projects should be handled in-house. That’s my general belief about staffing.  You may need outside help to set up the social media accounts — people who know the principles and the legal aspects and can steer you in the right direction.  People who can explain what it means to create relationships online, and a myriad of other things, like brand voice,  that you need to know to make your social media efforts a success. Most companies just don’t have the expertise to set up their social media accounts in an optimal way.

But what about the day-to-day conversations?

Social media is a long term commitment, taking time to develop a critical mass of followers and then, the effort goes on indefinitely.

Social media is not a campaign. It’s a way of life for business, so once you get the expertise to launch, you need to take the helm.

© DOC RABE Media - Fotolia.com

What if you are ready to get serious about social marketing but you don’t have anyone in-house who can handle it?  

In those situations, the agency may need to jump start the process. They do the posting. They do the listening. Your team watches and learns. But the goal is to ultimately turn it over to one or more people in-house. The agency’s representation of your brand should be temporary and there are three main reasons, outlined below.

If the agency’s job is anything more than providing expertise and training, this is where the line should be drawn. Yet training is not a minor matter.  There are nuances to communicating with the public that can’t be outlined in a book of rules. Good judgement is an important skillset and training the team in the what-ifs is a challenging job.

Success will be determined by the people involved.

If you are launching your company on social media platforms and you don’t have people in-house who are good communicators; who are capable of grasping social media principles and who you are comfortable sending out into the Wild West world of social media, you have a staffing problem.

Four Reasons You Shouldn’t Outsource Your Day-To-Day Social Media

1. There is no proxy for personal relationships.

Social media is about nurturing relationships in the service of building your business.  The relationships are between you and your community. Having an agency employee do this is like asking your friend who is a good shopper to buy your spouse a birthday gift.

The names and faces of the people who represent your organization should be shared with the the audience so they know who is talking to them.  At Lion Brand, the people who handle podcasting, blogging, Facebook and Twitter are named. Then, when we attend face-to-face events like conferences, and people meet them in person, the relationship deepens. Meeting the virtual voices of your social interactions in person is exciting to people.  Our customers love meeting our bloggers and podcasters person.  You can’t put a company t-shirt on an employee of an agency and take them in tow to conferences.

2. Your best shot at social media success may not come from a marketing person at all.

One of the greatest opportunities to connect with, and excite people about your content comes when the people outside of the marketing or p.r. departments tweet and blog. The backstory of your business from the point of view of your CEO, chief engineer or creative director is where the most golden content can come from.  Michael Hyatt, Matt Cutts, Mitch Joel., and Bill Marriott are examples of people whose position, expertise, or access to specialized information draw readers, commenters and fans.

An agency may be able to tweet for your marketing department, but no agency can step in for these masters in their fields.

3. Great content on real-time platforms, is spontaneous.

Social media is always on. Great stories happen in the moment. Like the best photographs, great social media is candid, not posed. It is spontaneous, not scheduled. (That is not to say that it is never scheduled. Scheduling is a fact of life.)

The moment of the tweet may be a spontaneous thought or observation but it results from being in the right place at the right time not scattered by social media commitments by other brands.

4. You can’t outsource passion.

Great social media community managers, bloggers and podcasters love what they do. They love the community. They are passionate about the topic and about sharing it.  Show me a person working at an agency on your behalf who passionately lives and breathes your business.

These are the reasons I’ve come to believe that social media should be done in-house. But there are many reasons why companies outsource the day-to-day social media interactions. Sometimes their strategy is to outsource as much as possible. Sometimes it’s a financial matter.

What has been your experience? Do you outsource your day-to-day social media interactions successfully?  I (and I think everyone who reads this blog) would love to hear a virtual roundtable discussion in the comments about what your practice and experience has been.

 

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About Ilana Rabinowitz

Ilana Rabinowitz

Ilana Rabinowitz is the vice-president for marketing for Lion Brand Yarn and blogs about social media at Marketing Without A Net. Rabinowitz approaches marketing with an uncompromising focus on the customer and a grounding in psychology and neuroscience to understand what motivates people to make buying decisions.  She believes that businesses need to develop their own media as a means of creating a branded experience for customers.  She has spoken at digital marketing conferences including Web 2.0, Blogher Business and Internet Retailer. She is the author of a book about psychology, a book about mindfulness and co-author of a book about the culture of knitting. Follow her on Twitter at @ilana221.

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.thewayoftheweb.net Dan Thornton

    I provide marketing and social media services to a range of clients and agree a lot with what you’ve said – I generally recommend that we handle training, assist set-up and look at guidance and monitoring, but that wherever possible the in-house teams should do as much of the actual conversing as possible.

    However, there are a small number of exceptions – for example, with one client I’ve been heavily involved in all areas of the business and worked as part of their team for around 9 months, so I’m pretty well versed in what they do and can respond on their accounts without any oversight etc, so it works pretty well.

    I would counter the idea that no outsider can care about your business as much as you – that might be true but an outsider can certainly care more about your business in comparison to many of your employees who might just be waiting on their regular paycheck. I’m lucky enough to have clients that I like and respect, and their businesses are massively important to me as their success is what drives my own…

    • http://twitter.com/Ilana221 Ilana Rabinowitz

       Dan,

      You’re right that any generalization – like “no outsider will care as much about your business as you do” will occasionally be wrong.  But if you’re hiring dedicated people, they won’t be just waiting for their paycheck. And it’s not just about hiring right–it’s about creating the kind of culture where people stay pumped about what they are doing.

      Thanks for sharing your experience in this area.
      Ilana

  • http://buzzshift.com/ Meagan Dahl

    Working at a digital strategy agency, I agree with your perspective that it is our job to empower our clients to direct their own social media voice. We do, as an agency, care about our clients and their audience and it is our passion to tell the right story in order to engage their targeted audience. Social media is just the conduit, building the relationship is the end goal.

  • http://www.twitter.com/kimberlyanner Kimberly Reyes

    Hi Ilana – I @mentioned you in a tweet, but I thought I would also elaborate here. First, I’d like to disclose that I work for an established social media agency that services premium clients (and I think that’s exactly why I have such a strong opinion on your piece here). 

    I’d like to start by addressing your claim that “agencies are ideal for handling work that is campaign-based.” While that may have been the model for traditional client-agency relationships, specialized social media agencies – which are the subject of your article – are structured for long-term engagements with our clients. When a brand hires an agency, it should not be for one-off contract jobs; it should be a true partnership. Unfortunately, the vetting system for most brands relies more on creative case studies rather than organizational structure and a proven track record of consistent, quantifiable results.

    Your next point states that agencies should be prepared to hand off the work to an in-house team. For some brands, that’s fine. But, as I pointed out, what we refer to as “premium” brands need social media agencies. These premium brands are large, often household names, and often global. They may have launched their channels in-house, but realize that delivering social media at scale requires more support. Agencies who structure their teams along brands rather than departments will have employees that are as dedicated to the client as in-house staff. Blaming brands for “having a staffing problem” because they don’t have employees that can handle social media is a bit harsh of an accusation. A brand’s biggest responsibility is that they deliver an amazing product, and staffing often revolves around that objective (as it should). Just because an employee is great at, say, making tires, doesn’t mean that he or she is interested in being a brand advocate.

    As for your 4 reasons…

    1. If I may get personal, my fiance loves all things Star Trek. I love it, too, but I am sadly limited to The Next Generation. So when I found Original Series prop replicas online, I KNEW I had to buy them, but I also knew that I needed help. So I asked one of my best friends, who knows way more about the entire Star Trek universe than I will ever, ever have the time or the desire to.

    2. I am a huge believer in the fact that the best ideas can come from anywhere. Which is why it’s so important for brands and their dedicated social media agencies to have open channels of communication with all stakeholders and establish a strong rapport with each other. In this digital world, it’s so much easier to manage a partnership remotely. That’s why I’m also a strong believer in having social teams do on-site meetings, walk-throughs, and even housing a couple of agency folks right alongside your team as an objective, but involved, lens.

    3. You’re absolutely right. Great stories do happen in the moment. But great stories are also creative, on-brand, and adhere to best practices. Specialized agencies have a system of checks and balances that ensure that content gets delivered in a timely fashion – with little risk involved.

    4. Passion is a pillar of the agency I work for. We understand that people are passionate about things, not brands. And we’re passionate about the same things. From outdoor sports to DIY fashion to vintage cars, and everything in between, we make sure that real-life expertise and experience informs the content so that in the end, we provide value to each of the brand’s audience segments.

    I don’t mean to dispute everything in your article, because you do bring us some great points – but I think those points make a stronger argument for why brands should be pickier about the social media partners that they choose, and why the agency/client relationship needs to evolve in this social world.

    • http://twitter.com/Ilana221 Ilana Rabinowitz

       Kimberly,

      I really appreciate your taking the time to give another point of view and to flesh it out so well. That is what I was hoping for. 

      My personal experience is with a niche brand so your perspective is appreciated. I have not worked in-house at a large consumer products company but I was in a meeting a couple of years ago with one of the largest and we were discussing social media marketing.  I mentioned that at our company, we devoted one individual exclusively to social media community management and the representative of that company said, “we could never afford to do that.”  I was surprised and a bit confused that a company with a marketing budget with significantly more zeros in it could not afford this. I’m guessing there is a reality to the structure of such a company that is not geared to incorporating social media in the day-to-day.

      In a way it is like the decision of a company about whether to outsource customer service calls or not.  And that depends partly on how central customer service is to the business. Zappos wouldn’t have it any other way, but for some companies, it takes focus from their primary purpose.

      Now to continue to the debate a bit–my thoughts on your responses to my 4 reasons
      1.  You may have gotten help to choose the specific Star Trek gifts that would be perfect but I doubt you got help to wrap them and give them.
      2.  No matter how much interaction your agency has with the brand’s team, it’s hard to imagine someone ghost writing a blog for the company’s Creative Director, Chief Engineer or CEO.
      3.  I agree that an agency is well suited to producing content in line with best practices, on brand and with little risk.  It doesn’t mean that this couldn’t be replicated in house.
      4.  Yes, passion can come from anywhere. 

      The point about brands being pickier about their agencies is an excellent one and your agency’s special capabilities around social media can point them in direction of asking the right questions. 

      • http://www.twitter.com/kimberlyanner Kimberly Reyes

        Ilana, I’m loving this dialogue and learning a new perspective! I suppose I’ve always been in the agency world and have had the great fortune of working with the kinds of clients who acknowledge and appreciate the services of an agency.

        I think the key takeaway here is that every organization is different. Some are product-oriented, some are service-oriented, some are brand-oriented, etc. All companies are probably strange combinations of the 3. Different organizations have different business goals that guide their investments, and that’s why it’s so difficult for us both to speak in absolutes without misstepping.

        You brought up an interesting point when you said “you may have gotten help to choose the specific Star Trek gifts that would be perfect but I doubt you got help to wrap them and give them.” And that’s true – sometimes my company is engaged strictly for our strategic services. Sometimes a brand just wants our ideation. In these cases, they have community managers in-house that execute and manage the day-to-day.

        Maybe both brands and agencies need to learn how to be flexible in how they engage each other. Just as social media provided a new way for brands to connect with customers, it also provided a new way for brands to engage with agencies :-)

  • http://www.crackerjackmarketing.com/ Stephanie Schwab

    Ilana, this is such a great topic. Since you and I first met when the agency I was working with did exactly what you describe – helping guide your company to get started on a new platform, which you then ran (and we’ve done that a number of times together) – I’m obviously a believer in the “teach a man to fish” theory. That’s how I approach social media with most of my clients – we strategize, help setup, teach, and support their staff as long as necessary.

    However, I also agree with commenter Kimberly that there may also be times when a brand, large or small, would need to have an “outsider” become an “insider” and act as a community manager on their behalf. In my own experience this has happened at a couple of startup clients, when adding a full-time person with benefits would have completely thrown off their budget (but they had funds for marketing), and my team and I became their social media department. We were able to bring a lot more arms & legs, and experience, to their effort than they could have themselves. We also helped keep social media from drowning in the day-to-day of startup life. I’ve done this for up to a year for clients, and it was always a positive experience on both sides. 

    As with everything social and marketing, there’s never a one-size-fits-all approach. In my opinion, the “teach a man to fish” theory is the ideal way, but not always the most realistic way.

  • http://michaeltunnell.com Michael Tunnell

    Hello IIana, (and others)

    I am a Website Designer & Developer but I occasionally do social media marketing for my clients. I agree with most of what you’ve said here IIana especially the passion aspect…agency employees can’t compete with the passion of an in-house employee, even if the agency employee truly cares for their company and in turn their client…but it is rather difficult for agencies to have passion for the business/brand/product of every client they ever have.

    However, what in the cases of an agency who agrees with your ideology of training and guiding rather than outsourcing…but they are dealing with a company who simply refuses to learn and do it themselves and instead would rather you do it or do nothing?

    @badgergravling:disqus  you are lucky to have clients that you like and respect and in cases have plenty of knowledge about their business but that is not the general use case. Most agencies may have the best of intentions but respect and passion is not something you can just force on yourself or your employees.

    @KimberlyReyes:disqus I agree with you in a sense that the generalization aspects of this article is not taking into account the agencies the specialized to certain types of brands or certain industries. In those cases, outsourcing to an agency that does know the industry and the brands it could certainly be a viable option. The problem is that these types of agencies typically only deal with large companies who can afford a industry specific agency…most companies, especially small business related companies, would be looking at a cheaper solution which would focus on agencies who may very well not care about the end goals of their clients as they don’t have the passion, knowledge, and/or drive to make their client’s social media goals succeed. I suppose this article should just be edited to include the statement that this is an average use case but there are times where outsourcing can be a viable option.

    @socialologist:disqus you make a very good point. I would certainly agree with the idea that startups could vastly benefit from a social media outsourcing strategy until they get to a point of being able to take over themselves. Startups already have a lot to deal with and having to add social media marketing on top of that can just be too time consuming or maybe they can’t afford to hire someone in-house in the beginning of their business.

    • http://twitter.com/Ilana221 Ilana Rabinowitz

      Hi Michael,

      The question you asked–about how to reconcile my belief that it’s better do handle social media in-house with a situation where the company doesn’t want to learn what it takes or do it –is a real world issue.  

      There is really not much you can do about that. It sounds like the company may not believe that social media is that important, in which case, you’re probably going to have a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

      However, if they successfully outsource the day-to-day activities of social media, they will see the value demonstrated by virtue of whatever metrics or goals they set out to achieve and take the next step to make it central to their business. It might just be a matter of time.

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