Social Media Outsourcing: Good Business or Fake Dialogue?

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“Brands are the stories that unite us all in a common purpose within an enterprise, and connect us with the people we serve on the outside. These brand stories give meaning to who we are and what we do.” – Mark Thomson

Social media outsourcing has been dubbed the next big thing — which could mean placing your brand in the trusted hands of outside agencies. Social media is about building relationships between your brand and your community — about listening to the conversation and engaging in it. As agencies are claiming to be social media experts, more companies are taking what I believe to be an easy route by outsourcing this function. But how well can they truly represent your brand? And more importantly, can they do it better than you can?

I challenged my esteemed colleague @AmandaVega (her blog Http://www.amandavegablog.com) and newcomer @mkarre to a throwdown on the topic of whether companies are better off outsourcing social media. Not surprisingly, @AmandaVega and @mkarre argued that outsourcing is the way to go. Why? Budgetary constraints, lack of resources and lack of social media knowledge. @AmandaVega states: “While most companies are really good at PUSHING messages, they aren’t very good at receiving them, or interacting in conversations that fall outside of the ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality. That’s another reason to assign this part of your marketing to the outside.” 

My take is this: Social media is about a conversation that can deepen engagement. By outsourcing social media, companies are diluting the message, the authenticity and the value they can deliver through direct engagement. There are a lot of agencies that do social media, and those that do it well can add value in helping you define a strategy on best practices. The role of an agency should be to provide guidance — not to directly engage for you. You know your brand, customers and community better than anyone else. As some politicians and celebs have learned the hard way, having someone else tweeting for you — even a trusted staffer — can lead to embarrassing gaffes.

Launching a social media effort requires laying a foundation and understanding which technologies are right for your businesses. Before agreeing to outsource social media, companies need to first understand what it is, why they want to do it, what their core strategic goal is and the strategy around it. When Lumension was looking to expand its presence online through social media, my team and I studied every aspect of social media to better understand what tools would be right for us — Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, vimeo, YouTube, etc. We took it upon ourselves to master this arena. After we comprehensively understood WHY we wanted to do social media, we brought in our existing PR firm, Lois Paul and Partners, to get SVP of Social Media Ted Weismann involved so he could provide the skinny on how it works, existing frameworks, best practices, etc. to establish a clear social media strategy. (Note: When searching for a PR firm, we made it a priority to select a firm that understood this changing landscape so we could not only establish a strong social media presence but also incorporate it into every aspect of our marketing and PR). For us — and I’m sure a lot of companies can relate — social media is about humanizing your brand and engaging with analysts, media, business community, users/customers and prospects.

My recommendation is to appoint a staff member in-house to oversee the social media function in terms of defining and owning social media strategy, policies, brand management, engagement, education, messaging and monitoring. This person (should they work with an outside agency or counsel) should play a leading role in integrating these agencies into the fold to help lay the groundwork, identify trends and ensure your strategy and execution are on brand/message.

If you are going to outsource, consider these tips before selecting an agency:

  • Find out what the agency’s basic social media strategy is.
  • Learn the why they use social media
  • Look at their success stories — how do they use social media to deepen brand engagement
  • Talk to their customers.
  • Research the agency on social media channels to see how they are using it.
  • Talk to social media experts and what the agency’s reputation is.
  • Read their blog if they have one (and they should) to see if they are driving the conversation

Twitter responses:

From @ScribeDevil @CindyKimPR In-house if possible. No one knows your voice better than you, and authenticity is more important than that pro-style shine.

From @Esnelz @CindyKimPR in your case, you probably don’t need much help, most need to outsource

From @mikesunx @CindyKimPR i think social media is not different than real life, some cos care about customers some dont all, same for PR and social media

From @srsaul04 @CindyKimPR great to see agencies like @LPP_PR give guidance on social media, but important for companies to engage/influence directly.

Let me know what you think. Is outsourcing the next big thing? And does outsourcing dilute the brand experience and authenticity of the corporate voice? Join Social Media Debate Community.

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Comments

  1. It’s one of the most daunting questions today – whether or not a corporation should bring social media management in-house, or outsource to specialists. Concerns arise about costs, control, and brand protection. So who is best to manage that voice?

    We vote outsourcing. (Of course we do!) While we can see the argument that an in-house team is best suited to protect and represent the global brand of a company in the truest voice, we do not think that most companies have the budget, time, flexibility, or understanding of this ever changing landscape to successfully manage their whole social media interaction at home base. While every company should have an internal person (or two) assigned to this task, they should be working with an outsourced team in order to get the depth and breadth of knowledge. You have to remember – most social zealots are like web nerds – they don’t play well inside of companies with policies and cubicles. By nature, the best of the breed would never go in-house at a company, unless…you pay them WELL above what most companies find reasonable.

    Additionally, let’s talk about the landscape of social media. While most companies are really good a PUSHING messages, they aren’t very good at receiving them, or interacting in conversations that fall outside of the “whats in it for me” mentality. That’s another reason to assign this part of your marketing to the outside. We could also go into discussion about the number of people needed to truly interact for a brand, in REAL conversations, on REAL topics that fall outside of the core competency. I can assign 45 people to one account, in say 4 countries and 3 languages – and they can all follow a master content document and branding standards that is created through a good listening campaign. An internal solution cannot provide that for you.

    Most companies haven’t even gone down this road yet, but we are working with corporations that realize social media is way more than marketing – it’s about risk and risk aversion. At this point, most companies that have to consider internal audit, risk management, database permeation prevention, and the associated reporting and fines that the government and other entities can enforce, use the IT manager and a Big 4 internal auditor consultant. What they miss in this – social media risk isn’t the same as other electronic risks. While it’s still worms and spiders, and other firewall attackers trying to get at your customer data through hacking methods – the openings and risk points are different in many cases, and change daily. Why? Because the players and tools change daily. Your company can create a policy and lock down the access to Facebook or Twitter at the counsel of the auditor, HR director, and executive team, but that isn’t enough. What about the 10-15 twitter interface access tools? What about the new ones that change and move daily? Only the social media expert will know that – and like that Big 4 auditor – they will never work in-house.

    So, I believe that outsourcing social media is the way to go – coupled with a strong internal marketing and IT/security person working alongside them as partners – not as another of 100 tasks you throw on the marketing kings plate and expect miracles.

  2. Cindy,

    The discussion you are bringing about is valuable. From where I sit, I tend to agree with Amanda on the value of outsourcing in this context.

    Lumension certainly is a company that gets it and has embraced the way in which companies need to market themselves in this day and age. It’s a commitment from the top.

    That said, I’d say that you are the exception to the rule, at least in the B2B world. Where companies can get value from agencies beyond the breadth and depth of experiences and advising companies on what to think about, is finding their voice. So many companies are stuck in a marketing 1.0 mentality as far as how they communicate. Many of them understand the importance of listening and that they need to engage, but when it comes to the act of engaging it’s done with a corporate vs. personal voice. Many also don’t have the time to fight through the noise to figure out who they should engage with and where they should focus their efforts in this regards on top of their other responsibilities.

    This is much like the value that a good communications counselor has provided for a long time, only the audiences and channels have changed.

    • You make a great point Ted. I appreciate the comments. You’re right in the sense that not a lot of companies get social media – they understand the basic principals of social media but maintaining authentic voice in the community is proving to be a challenge. I do agree that agencies do play a role in helping to shape and define strategy and best practices but I think it has to be drive out of the corporate versus having the agency engage for them.

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