"Politics doesn't make strange bedfellows, marriage does." -- Groucho Marx
Social media, and all the hype that comes with it, has sparked changes in many industries. In the analytics industry, new companies have formed and new alliances have popped up to help companies garner insights from all the public dialogue. In the field of CRM, companies are treating contact with customers in social channels with the same rigor and triage as call centers do. With all the new technologies and approaches at our fingertips, a new market of service providers is poised to capitalize on companies' struggles to sift through and manage all the chatter.
Any company looking to get help from a professional services provider related to social media will be confronted with a plethora of options, proposals, or flat out cold calls. These can be a mixture of:
- Sole proprietors or independent contractors
- Social media dedicated agencies (small, medium, and increasingly larger)
- Research firms expanding to provide strategic services
- Traditional PR agencies
- Digital or interactive agencies
- Advertising agencies
- Big 4 consulting firms
- CRM consulting firms
- Database marketing agencies
- Software platform providers
So when does one of these options make sense? Here are seven factors to consider when evaluating a partner.
- Industry experience
This may seem obvious, but acumen in any industry is going to be critical to avoid having a service provider learn on the job. Companies in regulated industries, like financial services or healthcare, need to have partners who understand legislation, government guidance, and concerns about how best to market to healthcare practitioners.
- Current agency ecosystem
Sometimes it's best to take a step back and look at the agency and consulting landscape. If you have an agency that is already supporting digital marketing activities or CRM processes, many CMOs look to have "one throat to choke" for related initiatives. AOR relationships can be leveraged, as long as the teams bring the necessary skills and integrate them with other services.
- Internal resource support and sponsorship
Understanding the amount of internal resources available will factor into the role a partner will play. For example, if a social media initiative requires creative and web development and the in-house teams have limited availability, it may be important to select a partner who has the means to execute these other services.
- Social media integration
Social media tactics are additional tools in the marketer's toolbox, and they are most effective when combined with other tactics. It's important to be aware of the cross-functional dependencies for the business processes required to execute the tactics. Do current agencies and partners understand this, and are they truly working to get the most out of overlap? For example, are the groups responsible for designing communication strategies through email, direct mail, and other methods working in concert with social media initiatives, or are they independent? How well do the agencies running these services work together, and which of them already has experience in social channels?
- Social media maturity
Developing a social media strategy is a different request than designing a robust engagement community or a broad influencer outreach program. Companies just trying to get started in social media require a different level of support and competency than those who are experienced in the space and looking to take their social initiatives to a new level. It's important to find the right partner who can offer complementary competencies while helping companies identify the best options.
- Business results achieved
Select a business partner that can show tangible examples of business impact through social media. They may be a better fit if they can show examples, even small ones, of using social tactics to drive business results. These can take many forms, but look for examples of improving customer retention, measured brand awareness, cost savings, or other business drivers as measurements of prior successes.
- Partnership ecosystem
"Social media" is a broad term. As the services industry matures, partnerships will emerge as companies look to develop capabilities and fill in gaps in service areas. Digital agencies may partner with platform providers or more traditional agencies to come up with a best of breed solution. In a different scenario, those partners may compete against each other where there is an overlap of core competencies. Either way it's important to understand the network of companies (monitoring tools, community platforms, creative, strategy, business process design, and training) and what each brings to the table.
In the end, social media provides a lot more customer touchpoints for businesses. As the services industry evolves, look for consolidation of these types of agencies and an elevation of the level of sophistication required to integrate management and use of those touchpoints to identify, activate and engage customers in more meaningful ways than before. Selecting the right service provider to get the most impact will be a key to your social success.