Who is best placed to handle Social Media for a brand?

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Two recent Social Media snafus were in the news for different reasons: one, where the CEO was seen as insensitive in his social media avatar and the other where an outsourced social media agency used inappropriate language on a brand’s Twitter feed. The former was a case of ‘in-house’ social media presence and the other was outsourced. Social media content for a brand is created either through specialist agencies who handle ORM and social media content or through in-house teams at client companies. And then there’s the possibility of the mainline ad agency doing the job – through a specialist Digital team or Division. Who among these is best placed to handle social media activity?

The answer: it depends.

A presence in Social Media is not mandatory for all brands. Those who do need it come in varied shapes & sizes: heritage brands, technology brands, service brands, entrepreneur-driven brands, leader brands, follower brands and so on. Each one will adopt a Social Media strategy that is best suited for them: as a customer support tool, a means of entertainment and buzz monitoring. Even among the agencies who handle such activity there could be varied levels of experience & understanding of the brand, the medium etc. There are endless scenarios and possibilities. So naturally, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. But some general observations:

First, the pitfalls of outsourcing. Your new agency could be a ‘specialist’ digital agency with a great understanding of how the medium works. They may be great in creative too. But they are only as good as their understanding of what the brand is all about. One way of understanding the brand is is handling it over a period of time. Chances are – and here I am not dissing anyone – the copywriter at your digital agency has only spent a few years in the business. His understanding of what a brand is all about comes from what has been told to him. A sharp definition of the brand, its boundaries is critical in such a scenario. So is close monitoring of the content.mThe second danger of outsourcing, especially in a scenario where multiple agencies are involved (one which creates strategy & produces mainline advertising, another which handles PR, another which handles media etc.) is one of dilution or fragmentation of efforts. Working in silos never produces the best result especially when its all about team work.

On LinkedIn, I had asked if Social Media should be outsourced; here’s one of the responses:

Branding is much about consistency in the signals you send to your customers, and giving them the same experience of your brand no matter where, how or who they get in touch with it. Therefore, I believe that the company knows the strategy, but more importantly, also the values of the company the best.

It is perfectly fine to get a consultant to help with how to use social media, but eventually the company will be better at being consistent in the signals they send, thus brand themselves. If it should be outsourced then the values of the company and current brand strategy should be crystal clear for the agency taking over the face on the social media platforms.  The agency might know social media very well, but it is a big responsibility to outsource.

It is eventually not about how competent you are at using social media but more importantly how competent you are at sending the right signals in coherence with your brand.

The option of doing it yourself, may work best for owner-driven brands whose reputation is linked to the head honcho. It gives a personal touch to the brand. Even with large corporations – airline brands, retail, automotive brands there are several examples of successful social media campaigns – perhaps created in house. I think companies should focus on whatever they were created for – making cars, creating financial products etc and leave the interaction with consumers (be it in traditional media or new media) to the ‘experts’.

The expert is one who best understands the brand and how to bring it alive in different media. Theoretically, it could be the ad agency. They have traditionally spent the maximum amount of time with the CEO, CMO etc in devising brand & creative strategies. But they have not acquired the necessarily skill sets (or at least seen not to have) to steer the brand in new media, leaving the field open to specialists. I hope the ad industry does not repeat what it did in the early ’90s (hiving off specialist media agencies) which led to total lack of communication between the two critical aspects of brand communication: creative & media. They are best placed to drive the brand perception in the right direction be it on a 30-second TV commercial or a 140-character tweet. But will the agencies rise up to the challenge?

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  1. Whoever handles the medium, it is imperative that the person within the organization knows a little about it.. Not an expert, but at least what the company needs to get out of it .. a little functional knowledge of how FB / twitter work helps too. The reason I say this is because while marketing teams tend to be extremely lean mid size organizations, the budgets that Brand managers play with makes it difficult to recruit ad agencies as their digital agencies too. In most cases, they need to look out for smaller niche social media agencies. It is here that inherent knowledge abt the medium goes a long way in chalking out our strategy and effective execution – small teams and lower budgets notwithstanding.

    twitter handle: madmanhawk

  2. I firmly believe that the brand owner has to be the company itself. Yes it is difficult to find the people and time to manage so many channels of communication. It is at this point it becomes relevant to have a consultant to design/assist in the overall strategy and then do the execution internally.

    • Thanks for the comment, Anaggh. I am not sure if doing the execution 'internally' is always possible for client companies. Some categories may require social media presence only for a limited period – a project, perhaps. Is it viable to set up teams internally only for that?

  3. I think campaigns should be handled by agencies, but regular posting on Twitter or Facebook should be done in house.

    I want to hear someone authentic inside the business talking to me. I don't think it's that hard. Sure, not everyone can do it straight away, but they can be trained. I think it's way easier to train the CEO on how to use Twitter than to teach an agency on what that specific brand is all about and where they need to draw the line.

    • Thanks Dragos. Agree with your POV on agencies & campaigns. What if the client is an FMCG and the social media engagement is over a launch of a toothpaste or something low involvement…over a short period of time? Does it still make sense to go in house?

  4. Yes, the experts understand the medium and know how to bring alive the brand in various media channels selected. But clients also need to start getting aware that social engagement with their consumers is very client dependent and needs a lot of involvement. So stopping at just outsourcing the services to a specialized agency does not help the brand become socially active online. The thinking has to be from the start, from the moment a product brief of campaign is being thought of. I think magic can happen only when the 'thinking social' is happens among the client, mainline agency and digital agency.

  5. Outsourcing its social media should not stop a company from engaging with customers socially. While consultants can possibly handle the job very well, it would be good for the the company's reputation and credibility if one of their own would still log in from time to time to interact with their followers/fans.

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