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Social media: The in-house vs. outsourced debate

agencyMouse99 and DigitalDiva
Social media: The in-house vs. outsourced debate agencyMouse99 and DigitalDiva

It all started when we, two social media marketers, got into a heated argument over IM. It went something like this: 

agencyMouse99: I know that I work in an agency, but I cannot believe that companies and brands continue to outsource their social media to us. It's such a big mistake on their end!

DigitalDiva: What are you talking about? Agencies are best suited to handle social media campaigns. You don't want to leave that in-house, with people who don't know what they're doing.

agencyMouse99: In-house is definitely the way to go. Agencies just can't deliver the authenticity required.

DigitalDiva: Do you mean for maintaining branded profiles, or for short-term campaigns?

agencyMouse99: Both!

DigitalDiva: You're so wrong.

agencyMouse99: Oh yeah? Bring it!

It's a debate that likely rages on behind the closed doors of brand marketers on a regular basis, and it's likely the source of a lot of second guessing, and perhaps even regret from time to time. We've witnessed it ourselves on many occasions, and here's what we generally say to our clients. (agencyMouse99 will take the side of managing social media in-house, while DigitalDiva represents the pro-agency stance.)

Issue: Authenticity
agencyMouse99: What is social media if not about authenticity? And the sure-fire way to mess that up is by using multiple people from a third party to manage your social media channels. These channels are supposed to be your direct connection with your customers and consumers. Faking that authenticity takes time, energy, and a surprising amount of research from the part of the agency. Is it really worth hiring them, and paying them by the hour, to artificially create something that you already have?

DigitalDiva: Yes, it is. Why? You may understand your brand well, but are you sure you know how to optimize it within the social media sphere? This world has a set of its own rules, and you need people who are aware of them and who can optimize your brand experience in that sphere. They will not be faking the authenticity if you make them a part of your team. Request that there is one person dedicated to your account who is briefed on your brand and is in direct contact with you. As long as the communication channels are open, they will establish personal relationship with you, your product, and your audience. That will translate into informed and authentic voice of your brand within the social media sphere.

Issue: Timing
agencyMouse99: Conversation on social channels moves fast -- sometimes incredibly fast. Consumers' attention spans on these channels grow shorter every day. When an agency handles your social media, there is always a time-lag, especially when messaging and updates need to be run through an approval process. An agency will have time to monitor your brand buzz for maybe a couple of hours a day, at best. There's far less spontaneity and real-time conversation when you outsource that responsibility.

DigitalDiva: Let's be honest. Would you yourself be able to monitor the conversation online for longer than couple hours a day or stay on top of the online trends? Hire an agency that you trust and that understands your brand and your strategy. Make them create a list of updates at the beginning of the campaign so that they know what you are looking for. But then, let go. No need to micromanage them throughout the whole campaign. If you let them do their job they will develop a relationship with the account and treat it like the community is their own. Let them run the show, but monitor their performance. They're in this business because they know what they are doing. They are the social media experts. Not you. Remember, at the end of the day, if you don't like what they are doing you can always fire them, but first give them a try.

Issue: Passion
An agency rep juggles multiple clients a day, and may or may not care for your brand on an emotional level at all. That lack of passion will show through. It means less motivation to go one step above and beyond and really connect with your customers/ consumers. It will come across in the tone and voice of the communication. Maybe you'll be lucky, and really hit it off with the agency, which will care for and believe in your brand as much as you do -- maybe more. But let's be real here. How often does that happen?

DigitalDiva: People at agencies who work on your social media are most likely passionate and very knowledgeable about the social environment. By working on multiple accounts, they are exposed to various campaigns and have greater knowledge about the field. They can use that knowledge to create an innovative and fresh campaign for you that has nothing to do with internal office drama and politics. Worried that they are not passionate enough about your brand? Motivate them. I know you're paying them, but they are only human. As a good manager you will be able to inspire them as well. Take your time to make them feel that they are a part of your group. Be nice, dear client. Nothing works better on the agency folks than praise. Remember, they are your partners, not your indentured servants.

Issue: Access
A third party just doesn't know what's going on in your company or with your brand on an intimate level. They don't have access to inside info, gossip, stories; they won't have an inherent understanding of your office culture or the tone of your conversations. Insider info should, of course, not be leaked out into the social media space, but having that inside access will fire up new ideas and innovative ways to share information appropriately and connect with people. And more importantly, understanding the inner workings of your company means you also know what not to say.

DigitalDiva: Think about it -- do you really want the customers to have access to your office gossip, or to the atmosphere at your company? I didn't think so. As long as you give the agency folks some space and allow them to feel like a part of your team, they will reward you with great work. Think about how to best engage them. Let them participate in meetings. Ask them for opinions and listen to what they have to say. Be communicative and open-minded. Give them the access to your brand and it will transform your social media strategy into intelligent, authentic, and informed campaigns.

Issue: Accountability
Sure, the agency is accountable. But how do you know that they're not leaving your trusted brand in the hands of an unpaid intern? You can have a wish-list of what you want, but at the end of the day, agencies have their own priorities and their own daily dramas, and the very important job of communicating with your customers might get relegated to someone who really has no business handling it.

DigitalDiva: Are you paying the agency or not? Sure, there are some sub-par agencies with unmotivated employees out there, but the solution is simpler than you think. If they are not delivering and fulfilling the objectives of the campaign that they themselves set up, fire them. Are they doing a good job with the account or not? As long as they are interacting with your audience on the social networking sites and as long your fanbase is growing you have nothing to worry about.

After long and draining argument about the virtues and flaws of agencies' social media expertise, we decided to agree to disagree. But we can see the other's point of view, as both arguments are valid.

Which side do you trust the most? Would you or would you not hire an agency to do your social media campaign? We'd love to hear your thoughts!

Editor's note: This article was submitted to iMedia under the condition of anonymity. We felt that the opportunity for an unobstructed view on debates that are likely going on behind closed doors throughout the industry would be valuable to our readers. Should you have questions for the authors, or our editorial staff, please feel free to leave a comment below the article, or


to leave comments.

Commenter: Mark Laux

2010, June 21

I've worked as an in-house communications director and as an agency owner, and in my opinion a both and approach will work best. You need an objective view point and creative input that only comes from agency-style creative departments. I've had the opportunity to work with a wide range of creative talent, and mostly, these people don't much like working in corporations. Instead, they tend to favor shops that offer a wider range of subjects to work on.

Of course they bounce from one client to the next depending on the day and the assignments, but that's a good thing because when they come back to you, they have a wealth of experience that may apply to your business.

As far as passion is concerned, that has more to do with the client and their take on the management of creative services. Great products with a crappy client will suck the creative life out of an account and make it difficult for any passion to come through. ON the other hand, a really great client can get fantastic work for a dull product.

Next, clients have a tendency to become fixated on the people they have. The thinking is: "We've got to keep Timmy busy" so they give Timmy assignments that he may not be good at. This is a mistake, as the staff may or may not be good at social media, but they will forge ahead because ti's the job they have.

From the client-side, you do get a deeper understanding of the brand and products by working on them exclusively, so it is essential to stay involved in the process. The best clients can see great communications no matter where they come from, and are willing to get behind it and champion the effort.

Kip: With over 30 years in the communications industry, I have run across your style of thinking time and again. It's too bad when things go south. I'm sure there is an agency story here, too. Beyond that, the trouble you're headed for is a stale end product and dull communications that rely too heavily on limited resources. You had a bad experience, you chose poorly, the process fell apart. But that doesn't mean all agencies are bad or not capable of generating spectacular work. It just means you haven't yet healed and are not ready to try again. In my opinion, that's just going to make your effort worse, not better.

Commenter: Christine Randle

2010, June 18

Great debate! I prefer a hybrid approach. A structure that allows contribution from both the agency and the client.

Commenter: Kip Edwardson

2010, June 18

I don't even need to read this. My experience was so bad on one of our brands that I'll never turn it over to an agency again. As I always say, "no agency or partner will ever know your business or brand as well as you." Granted, I'll pay for their advice and opinions simply because at this time I don't have the time, nor do I have anyone internally, who is navigating all the areas in this space to completely understand it. But I'll take their advice and run it through the filter: Would that work for Brand X? Regardless, the "actual" work is going to be done behind our doors where we own and cultivate those relationships with our consumers. There is no debate.

Commenter: Walter Adamson

2010, June 18

If DigitalDiva and their clients believe that "social media" is a "campaign" and "channels" to be "managed", as you've framed it, then they can leave that to their agency just as they have left their advertising in the past. The returns may be ever diminishing but that's the bed in which they choose to lie.It has very little to do with social media.

If agencyMouse99 believes that their clients want to become social businesses, working more collaboratively with clients to achieve greater engagement across the business, then she's giving them good advice to do that themselves. There is no other option.

Walter Adamson @g2m