There is some talk over at NMA about the battle for control of social media. In one corner we have the PR agencies, and in the other there are ad agencies.

Personally I can’t see any value in allowing either of these types of agencies to develop and manage your social media strategy. Or any other agencies for that matter, even those dedicated to social media.

Controversial? I should hope not…

So who should own and manage your social media strategy? 

I firmly believe that a company’s social media strategy should be owned and managed by the company itself, rather than by external agencies.

Why? Well, mainly because…

a) Your people are your best asset, when it comes to social media, or at least they should be (if they’re not then you’re doing something wrong). 

b) You cannot fake it. The people you want answering questions and dreaming up ideas are the people with real insight into your business. The best agencies can definitely get to grips with what you do as a business, your products and services, your goals, and so on. But there’s nothing quite like working at a company, in order to fully understand – and care about – what it does.

c) You need to share the workload. An in-house marketing team shouldn’t control social media any more than an agency should. You want your product development people to listen and respond to product feedback. You want your sales people to handle sales enquiries. You want your customer service reps to deal with complaints and questions from existing customers. No agency – or single department – can cope with it all. 

I created a quick Twitpoll survey to see what our Twitter followers think. At the time of writing almost 60% of those who responded agree that a brand’s social media should be owned in-house, versus 15% in favour of the social media agency, 12% of the PR agency, and 7% of the digital marketing agency.

I included an ‘Other’ category, which one in ten people clicked. The feedback here was often that it should be a combined effort between client and agency. Perhaps that’s the most sensible option, though I believe that the client should own and drive the strategy, with the agency in a support / guiding role.

Notably only one person voted for ‘The Ad Agency’. It’s nice to know that Sir Martin Sorrell is tuned in!

See the full set of results here.

Help vs ownership

Agencies can play a massively important role in helping to define a roadmap for social media success, but helping is very different to ‘owning’. 

The responsibility for developing and managing social media needs to be borne in-house if a business seriously intends to realign its culture. And make no mistake: social media is a cultural and organisational challenge for most businesses of any scale. Only by embracing engagement and by becoming more open – both internally and externally – can a business transform how it is perceived in public (and in private: staff retention and satisfaction are hugely important). 

The pace of change is going to be incredibly important for some businesses that are obviously struggling to adapt. Many long-established (and seemingly slow-moving) brands are trading on their former glories, and have been found out. Companies with rubbish service levels might not be around in a decade or so. Yes, it can be hard to adapt to the demands of the modern business environment, but paying an agency to manage social media isn’t going to help these companies to directly deal with the challenges that face them.

Besides, outsourcing the management of social media sends out the wrong message. Where’s the commitment to interaction, to customer-centricity, to empowering staff, to giving a shit? Unless a brand really commits to engagement then it will seem fake and hollow to people who tune into you via social media channels. It’s the difference between a journalist interviewing a CEO directly to unearth some answers, and talking to a PR rep. 

It’s not just about driving and embracing participation, it is about the quality of interaction. The right people need to be involved. I believe that the right people are in-house employees. 

Who should own social media in-house?

Somebody within a company should own the direction of social media. It might be the marketing director, or the content manager, or head of comms, or maybe there’s a need for you to create a specialist role and hire a social media governor. But even then, the burden should be shared, and you need multiple stakeholders to do this properly.

Part of my role at Econsultancy is to oversee and steer our social media strategy, but I’m really just a cheerleader (I’ve seen what it has done for our brand in the past two or three years). I manage Matt, our social media manager, and work with him to define and implement our tactics. But others are involved too: our marketing director, our CEO, our commercial team, and certainly our content team and forward thinking analysts (one of whom – Aliya – set up our Twitter account while I was still bitching about it being a repository of updates relating to the dining habits of people’s cats). 

It’s a team game, and that extends to coordination too. There’s no way that I, or Matt, or anybody else would be able to answer every question that is directed at us via social media channels. Nor would we want to. Others are often much better placed to comment. For example, we ideally want the analyst who wrote a report to answer questions relating to that report. We share the workload. It’s a case of horses for courses.

I know that Econsultancy lives and breathes the internet, and with fewer than 60 staffers it is easy enough to transform the way we work, but I don’t think we’re unique in thinking that we are better placed than any agency to coordinate, manage and develop our own social media strategy.

And if that sounds a bit arrogant or insular then it’s really not meant to be, it’s just that I think we know our business – and our audience – better than any agency does. 

Where agencies can help…

I’m a huge fan of specialist agencies. There are some amazingly talented people in our industry, working in agencies that focus on PR, SEO, advertising, conversion optimisation, user experience and so on. We know a little bit about these areas too, but there’s nothing like hiring an agency to bring new ideas to the table, to look at things with an unbiased eye, and to drive strategic projects aimed at helping us improve our business. We’ve hired all of these types of agencies in the past, and will do so again.

There are also some brilliant social media agencies out there, which can help brands at a campaign level (which is often where many start off with social media… a little toe dipped into the warm water), and also at a strategic level (to figure out how social media channels can support wider business goals). Social media agencies can also help brands to put their houses in order, to plan and prepare, and to show staff the ropes. They can implement the technology and monitoring tools needed to run a slick social media operation. And they can be brilliant for brainstorming – and executing – creative ideas that can put an old brand on the new social media map.

But at an operational level, for large brands, I doubt that any agency in the world is best placed to deal with the kind of feedback we see on the likes of Twitter and Facebook, on a day to day level.  

It’s like PR agencies that deal with crisis management, which is increasingly becoming something of an old school concept. Nowadays a crisis will erupt on social media platforms, and there’s no way that a PR firm can ‘manage’ it. Twitter, as a broadcast medium, is in the hands of the people who use it, and it cannot be manipulated by PRs in the same way that a newspaper can be. The PR agency can provide guidance on how a brand should react in difficult circumstances, but the response needs to come from the brand itself. Twitter is a personal medium, a publishing platform for consumers, and they will use it to ask questions and complain in public. And questions and complaints are normally best answered by customer services reps, not PRs (or social media agency staff, nor in-house marketers for that matter). Horses for courses.

So for me, agencies should be used tactically. They should be brought in – or retained – to help develop social media strategies, and to execute social-orientated marketing campaigns, and to provide relevant advice on planning and operations. I maintain that social media best practice is about sharing the workload internally, and that agencies should be used tactically in a support role. And there is potentially a lot of support needed, so don’t for one minute interpret this as a suggestion that social media agencies are redundant. My underlying point is all about who ‘owns‘ social media, which is – I think – vastly different to something like paid search, which can be comfortably and fully outsourced in the blink of an eye. 

As mentioned, for most companies the challenge is a cultural one, and an organisational one. Handing the social media reins to the best agency in the world, no matter what their discipline might be, is not going to help a firm to help itself in the long-run. 

I am braced for your thoughts!