July 11, 2012

Don’t bring your social media completely in-house

Zappos!Chris AbrahamI really believe it’s bad advice to recommend that companies fire their social media consultants, experts and agencies only to bring everything in house.

While “everyone” is on Facebook, social media is no longer a land of tinkerers; it’s a land of consumers. If you fill a room of potential brand ambassadors you harvest from your own ranks, I guarantee that only 1% to 10% of those people are active participants, and the rest are passive folks who are mostly lurkers. And when people bring up Zappos as the corporate exemplar, I always remind them that Zappos is exceptional and that’s why they’re the only company anyone can think of who does it as well internally. Plus, Zappos is a dyed-in-the-wool customer-service-centric company with an aggressive, visionary founder — someone who has completely rebuilt itself to over-serve its communities. Kudos, but seriously a truly exceptional example.

Only the largest companies have in-house counsel — their own corporate lawyers. Very few small or medium-sized companies maintain their own in-house accountants, designers, publicists, reputation and crisis managers, or marketers — some don’t even have their own dedicated sales teams.

And this is becoming more and more the reality of modern business — and it started in the ’90s. Why incur internal staff bloating when you can keep your staff limited to core expertise and services in focus, outsourcing everything else to professional service firms — vendors? Specialist vendors, like doctors or lawyers or management consultants, are generally staffed by people who are not only trained and experienced but also have the benefit of being able to load-balance and mind-share across the experience of multiple clients.

The best vendors, like the best docs and lawyers, keep rigorously up to date in the state of the art with a single-minded incentive to keep up and even lead the way. Personally, I have over 15 years of experience in consulting, and the only way a consultant ever gets a job — and keeps it — is by being just a little smarter, more curious, quicker, and more confident than the client — and since this is rarely completely true, most consultants worth their salt work really hard and spend many hours being and staying a top expert in the field.

Why Zappos is the unicorn of social media success stories

For most companies, one would generally need to rehire everyone in a company to make certain they’re dyed-in-the-wool social media passion players with exceptional communications, empathy, and writing skills. Most folks just want to have and keep a job and livelihood in the career they trained for.

To me, Zappos is the unicorn of social media-brought-internal success stories. So many companies that appear to have their own internal social media teams — or even say that they do — actually have leaned very heavily on all the agencies I have owned and worked for.

Having an agency or outside expert to facilitate action is important when so many team members in most companies think social media is a waste of time

In my not-so-humble experience, it’s naïve to believe that the “team sport” model works when it comes to sharing the social media brand ambassador load internally. It always lands on one person’s shoulders. Having an agency or dedicated expert to facilitate action and follow-through is the best way. Too many of the team members in most companies “don’t get social media” and quite a few “think it’s a waste of time.” Happens every time.

While these folks might be hot-and-heavy at first, very few if any of them will be able to keep up their excitement over time, especially if they’re OBE — overcome by events. The moment work (or personal life) picks up and gets busy, will the social media responsibilities suffer? How much respect for the importance and power of social media do your employees really have? If any of them consider social media monitoring, engagement, and outreach to be either a secondary task or “beneath them,” then the writing’s on the wall. The honeymoon period with cool and the continuity of outreach and the quickness of the response might suffer. Blog posts, tweets, and page posts will descend to periodically and then to Ghost Town.

I don’t understand all these experts who actually believe that companies even have an interest — or the passion (or even the time) — to take social media in-house, especially if they only hire one community manager or director of social media. One’s not enough. The social mediasphere is enormous, incessant, 24/7/365, and 80% listening which demands crisis management experience to boot.

And when it comes to the argument that social media teams really need to be bona fide corporate employees, it really doesn’t jibe with modern American business. Companies use agencies all the time to represent them. An agency just needs to connect, communicate, and work together with their client consistently, directly, and over time. One can easily weave consultants and agencies into companies.

It happens all the time with lawyers, accountants, counsel, board members, etc. These are independent entities that are very much woven into the fiber of the company even if they don’t have a key card, company health insurance, and a 401k. Getting a key card and a company logo polo aren’t a panacea — these things don’t confer magical powers of connectedness and corporate memory.

That employees are more authentic is a false premise — this is 2012, a distributed world where outsourcing and offshoring are more common and accepted than they have ever been in history.

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Chris Abraham is a partner in Socialmedia.biz. Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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One thought on “Don’t bring your social media completely in-house

  1. Gonna disagree here. Although it's not black and white, and there will always be a place for consultants, those businesses that move towards a social model will go the distance. Sure, there's a transition period where trying to weave social into existing roles is met by walls of inexperience and complacency.

    But the same was true when phones and email were first introduced into the workplace. Took a few years, but those walls soon disappeared.

    Social should be woven through a business in exactly the same way as email and phones are. They are simply alternative communication tools, that's all. So yes, sales teams should have access to social. Support teams should have access to social. Management, marketing and other teams should have access to social.

    And it will happen.

    Where consultants and agencies with their higher skill will still be necessary will be on defining specific campaigns or strategies – just as businesses will call in a telemarketing consultant to devise or optimise new sales scripts, or an agency will design an innovative email marketing strategy.

    But that doesn't take social away from the business any more than agencies and consultants should handle every phone call or email. There's overlap and areas of expertise. But the business of the near future will be social and talking to customers on Twitter will be as natural as picking up the phone, regardless of whether it's part of an expertly designed campaign strategy or not.

    I'm a little tired of agencies and consultants trying to claim ownership of social media as unknowable magic and pixie dust best left to the experts. Not saying that's you, just that it's an attitude I hear regularly and rather resent.

    Of course businesses should bring social in-house. Those that don't will lose in the long term. But that doesn't mean there isn't an important place for consultants and agencies still.