As social networks like Facebook and Twitter continue to grow in popularity, clients are turning to their agencies for help establishing a strong social media presence. But with the rapid growth of social media and the lightning-fast speed at which technology changes, agencies are finding it's essential to have people on board who can keep up.
With any new technology, it's hard to know when to jump on board and whether it's worth establishing a new wing for new media. It can be funny to look back and see how other new technologies were either embraced or shunned; the show "Mad Men" poked fun at the reluctance to embrace television by having the fictitious Sterling Cooper agency start a television department with one member.
With its fast growth and wide audience, it's safe to say social media will be a part of almost every campaign from here on out. But before an agency starts a social media department, there are some things to consider.
Do you need it?
Starting a new division in an agency costs money and could divert resources from other departments. Before an agency starts a social media department, it needs to look at its resources and clients' needs.
At The Zimmerman Agency, a Florida-based agency that has done work for Aflac and Tobacco Free Florida, digital marketing was already a focus, in addition to traditional and PR work. But about two years ago, as client demand grew, the agency brought in some new hires and moved some existing staff to build a small social media department of a half-dozen members. Although the decision was initially met with some hesitation, that has changed, according to Executive Vice President and Director of Client Services Andy Jorishie.
"As a philosophy at this agency, we like to push digital in general. We don't want to ghettoize it, as it has been," he said. "It was an obvious decision."
Molecular, whose clients include Adidas, Nikon, and T. Rowe Price, did things a little differently. Rather than build one department responsible for social media, the agency has been working to get everyone thinking about social media, with its emerging interactions practice driving that change.
"Everyone in our agency knows it is important and should be a part of all projects," said Steve Mulder, head of emerging Interactions at Moecular. Mulder's group isn't necessarily responsible for all the social media work, but instead serves as the "hub of internal thought process," as he put it.
The constantly changing world of social media can be tough to negotiate. A few years ago, Facebook was limited only to college students, and Twitter didn't even exist. Now both are considered leading social network sites and, with millions of members, provide a huge audience for brands looking to promote themselves. Whether agencies can handle those fast-paced changes is up for debate.
"You need to move nimbly, and that's not just going to happen at very large, established agencies," said Michael Lazerow, founder and CEO of Buddy Media, a digital and social media marketing agency that has done work for brands including Reebok, Bud Light, and Fox News.
But for agencies that already make it a priority to stay on the cutting edge, a social media department may be a natural fit.
Mulder explained that Molecular assigns its principal consultants to focus areas every year, and their job is to look toward the future. It's been several years since he signed up to work on new ideas centered on Web 2.0, and the social media landscape was very different back then -- MySpace was far more popular than Facebook, and there was no Twitter -- but Mulder said it was clear social media was going to be something agencies wanted to get ahead of.
"Even then, when Web 2.0 was barely a term, it was pretty obvious that things were moving quickly," he said.
In some cases, it might make more sense to partner with another agency that already has strong ties to social media marketing. Lazerow argues that for now, agencies shouldn't be starting new departments.
"It's a very risky venture for an agency to open up a significant social media presence," he said. "There's $1 billion spent on social media and $5 billion spent on marketing. Why not wait until that number goes up to $5 billion or $10 billion?"
The 30-member team at Buddy Media focuses solely on building applications, pages, and widgets. Many of the company's clients come through partnerships with other agencies.
"The smartest agencies are partnering, not building," he said. "But that may change over time. We're focused on a business that is much more closely aligned with the agencies than against them. We want to be partners now and partners in 10 years."
For some agencies, it has made sense to start thinking about social media internally.
Get the right people
Who makes up a social media team largely depends on your agency's focus.
With Buddy Media's focus on the technical side of social media, Lazerow said most of the agency's employees are web developers and designers. Teams at The Zimmerman Agency and Molecular combine creatives, technical developers, and account managers.
Just as important as actual skill, though, is ensuring everyone on the team knows and uses social media in their personal lives. Having those people as part of a social media department ensures clients won't commit the biggest online faux pas: Looking like they're trying too hard.
"It's difficult to understand how an organization should use Twitter unless they live in Twitter themselves," said Mulder.
Practice what you preach
For individual users, not a lot of thought goes into a Facebook page. It's a casual and conversational medium that companies need to adopt to stay relevant online, but at the same time, they need to work their message in and avoid sounding cheesy.
Building its own social media presence has helped The Zimmerman Agency better understand what's acceptable, Jorishie said.
"We practice what we preach. To be cool in social media is to talk in that language. You've got to be with it," he said. "The more comfortable someone is with it in their personal lives, the more comfortable they are selling it."
On its Facebook page, Zimmerman posts pictures of employees and company events alongside business news.
Because the platforms that social media pages run on are constantly changing, social media teams need to be flexible and able to come up with new ideas quickly.
"We're in a business where the technology changes daily," said Lazerow. "I think the question is, 'What has changed over the last 10 minutes?'"
Sell, sell, sell
Fortunately, it's getting easier for agencies to sell their clients on social media services, although that wasn't always the case. Clients that are getting ahead of their agencies online is a more common problem.
Buddy Media, which is almost two years old, has gotten some of its business from clients whose agencies weren't ready to take them into social media.
"It was a hard start. We had to convince the agencies to convince their clients," Lazerow admitted. "Now we have clients saying, 'Give me a social media solution yesterday.' They're looking at where consumers live."
While Buddy Media gets many of its clients through partnerships with others that don't offer social media as part of their marketing packages, sometimes clients will come to it directly when their agency isn't moving fast enough on the digital front.
Thanks, in part, to the growing popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, businesses are becoming more aware, on their own, that these are tools they need to use. And as these websites age, agencies are able to provide their clients, for the first time, with some data about how social media can help them.
"Our direct stakeholders are seeing in other industries that companies are using social media to stand out. Clients are easier than ever to convince," said Mulder. "There are a lot more success stories and a lot more metrics and results."
Keep your team on its toes
Now that clients want to use social media in their marketing strategy, the questions they're asking agencies are starting to change.
"The questions that they come with are a lot more immediate: 'Is my audience ready for social media tools? How do I add to my online presence?'" Molecular's Mulder said.
The challenge an agency is more likely to face, according to Zimmerman's Jorishie, is convincing a client that although many social networking sites are free and, socially, require little time, that's not the case for them.
"It's been hard to convince some clients that it's not a one-time thing. It's a commitment," he said, adding that Zimmerman offers different levels of digital services to its clients. "It's a participatory thing. Like a garden, you have to grow it."
When it comes to a presence on social websites like Facebook and Twitter, or even commenting and participation on their own brand sites, it's important to have someone posting new content and moderating user-generated content.
"One of the assumptions companies make is it's easy and cheap," Jorishie said. "But you need to staff that can keep the dialogue alive. You don't want to have ratings and reviews that aren't moderated. You need to watch for spam."
On the technical side, it can take a team to come up with new ideas and ways for companies to get themselves out there.
"There are a lot of moving parts and it's labor intensive," said Lazerow. "It's more than just placing ads."
Some industries have been slower to latch on to social media than others. The financial sector, for example, is more conservative and takes to new strategies more slowly. Medical companies have had concerns about privacy and legal issues. But, as social media has continued to grow steadily even those last hold-outs are coming around.
"We have healthcare firm client and we're seeing a lot more flexibility and openness than there was two years ago from legal with what we can experiment with and try online," Mulder said.
Social media is the wave of the future, but what the future will look like is anyone's guess. Clients are more likely to expect a social media aspect to their marketing plan, but who provides that content will depend on an agency's capabilities. For some, it makes sense to start an internal social media department, but for others, partnerships might be your answer.
Ultimately, an agency that is going to be successful in social media needs to be ready to adapt to clients' needs while constantly watching changing technologies.
Meghann Ackerman is a freelance writer.
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