The Social Media Agency Relationship: A Guide for Businesses

As more and more businesses buy social media services from agencies and consultants, there remains some grey area around exactly what you can buy and outsource, what you can’t – or shouldn’t, and how the whole relationship is supposed to work.

I’m a provider of social media consultancy and training, but not so long ago I was in the other side of the agency fence, in the corporate camp.  So with dual hats on, here’s my considered guide to buying social media services for business:

Whatever you buy, it’s a partnership

Whether you want a full-blown strategy, campaigns, specific training or ongoing coaching in social media, this is a partnership with your agency or provider. A great agency will take as much time as is needed to really get under the skin of your organisation and understand first and foremost what it is that you need to achieve.  They’ll need your help to understand that, before translating it into social media goals, tactics and measurements.

Sometimes you need to take a step back away from social media

If part of social media is to do with engaging your target audience and sharing relevant messages (and of course, there are other uses, see below), you’ll need to be very clear first of all about who that audience is and what your messages are.  Before you can start engaging, are you clear about the ‘who’ and ‘what’? If not, you need to get this defined first of all.  A good agency can work that through with you, if you find it hard to articulate. Clear and consistent messages make your social media efforts impactful and relevant.

Good social media consultancy is about empowerment

The ultimate aim of any agency worth its salt has to be to educate, equip and organise their client brilliantly in their social media endeavours, to the point that the client is empowered to manage at least a good chunk of their social media activity in-house.  Why is this important? Well, to be authentic, responsive and to be able to seize the social media initiative, an organisation needs to be actively engaging first-hand with their audiences. To completely outsource that is to compromise authenticity.

Training has a few different faces

So you can’t buy authentic engagement, but you can buy the means to do it well. And that’s a worthwhile investment.  A good agency or consultant will ensure that those involved in social media activity (even on the periphery) understand and know how to use a whole range of tools for engaging, sharing, listening and monitoring.  But more than that, they’ll ensure that those people also understand the bigger picture: that’s to say, the context in which social technologies are used, motivations and behaviours, standards and policies, and the bigger social picture.

Scoping, policy and strategy benefit from the outside-in approach

Assessing an organisation’s scope for utilising social media can be hard to do from the inside.  Internal pressures, barriers and preconceptions can fog the vision and make it hard to see the full range of possibilities ahead.  Opportunities can be missed. Without a doubt, an external and objective view is valuable, and for this reason, agencies can deliver much value through this exercise.  If scoping should be a visionary and aspirational examination of opportunities alongside the uncovering of hard facts, then strategy and policy are rooted firmly in an organisation’s reality and should reflect the barriers and limitations that could affect social media activity there.  Done well, it’s a balance of ideal scenario and measured ambition, tempered with reality and achievable aims.  An outside view should bring vision, ideas, creativity and inspiration, but also should be able to apply these to your organisational reality (which could be lack of resource or buy-in, parallel communication activity, specific objectives and so on) and to provide creative solutions for overcoming any hurdles in your way.

The same applies to revisiting an existing social media strategy  – in this case in particular, an external view will provide the most rounded and candid take on what’s working and what isn’t, perception and sentiment in the marketplace, and provide industry best-practices to benchmark against.

Agencies should be able to save you time…with added value

So far, it’s pretty clear that agencies can empower and educate, but that time and effort from the client organisation is very much needed to make the most of its social endeavours. So where can agencies bring most time-saving benefit?

A key activity that’s well-worth engaging an agency for is monitoring and listening. We all do that to some extent in any case, in our every day social media use, through RSS feeds, alerts and Twitter search streams.  But agencies can add value by monitoring and listening against some very specific terms, themes and audiences. And the genuine value is when they can take that information, analyse it, and provide you with insightful stats, trends and recommendations as a result.

Agencies should be able to help you be you, but better

Another area where agencies can add value is in providing on-going coaching, to ensure that you have a good grasp of what’s working, what isn’t and where there are additional opportunities to be leveraged.  They should be concerned with helping you develop as a socially-engaged business and as individual users of social media. If they are not actively offering that, demand it!

What’s your experience of social media agencies? Where can they add most value?  What have you learned from that partnership? It would be great to hear some examples – and hopefully that will ultimately help agencies deliver more value  to businesses.

Kate Spiers is founder and director of Wisdom London, a creative communications consultancy.

4 Responses to “The Social Media Agency Relationship: A Guide for Businesses”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Daniel Drage and Joe Edwards, Kate Spiers. Kate Spiers said: Just blogged: The Social Media Agency Relationship: A Guide for Businesses: > love to hear your thoughts/experiences […]

  2. Spot on post, Kate. Your first few points are dead on the money – any agency should get under the skin of the why’s and who’s and what’s before starting anything. We do it without even thinking, but I’ve heard of others that don’t.

    Likewise, training and empowerment are really, really important. We now take the view that yes, we’ll get your campaign up and running but that, after say six months, you need to be in a position to take that in-house and just use us for strategic advice and consultancy if possible. It’s a sensible and sustainable long-term strategy for the client.

    • Paul, thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂 have you had any particular surprises where you’ve added value in ways you hadn’t anticipated?

      • I don’t think that anyone who knows their stuff can fail to add value at present, Kate. You and I and the rest of us working on the social web take this stuff for granted, but I think we live in a bit of a ‘social bubble’.

        The vast majority of marketers and brand managers don’t have much of a clue at present (and that’s not intended to sound negative, it’s just the way it is due to the tech being new(ish) and people’s time being short) and so the simplest things to me (like, for example, programming a custom landing page on Facebook that has unique content for page fans) are really impressive to others.

        So I’m constantly surprised (and yet not surprised?!) at the ways that I/we can add value.

        And while I’m on the subject of social media bubbles, you might want to check out the next #bigtweetoff when news is released in the next couple of days…

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