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Why social media agencies are a farce

Why social media agencies are a farce David Waterman

When I first saw social media agencies starting to pop up all over the place, I started to wonder if there were ever fax marketing agencies. Was there a rush of ambitious entrepreneurs setting up shop to offer fax marketing services when fax machines were brand spankin' new just because they knew how to use one? If there were, I'm sure those agencies are also long gone, and for good reason: Fax marketing was only one part of the entire marketing machine. In fact, today it's practically non-existent.

I have the same fear for social media agencies.

Social media, although still quite a hot topic, is only one piece of the brand building and customer acquisition puzzle. An effective marketing strategy is inclusive of various mediums; each communicating the same message in their own unique way. Social media definitely has its place within a marketing strategy, but just like faxing, rarely is it the sole medium.

A warning to all!

The reality is this isn't a warning just for social media agencies; it's a warning for any agency that tries to encapsulate their diverse marketing services within a single industry buzzword.

In a recent Adweek article about social media agencies becoming less social, Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, stated the following: "Social is a totally different discipline, it's part SEO, it's part [audience] development, it's part advertising, and it is part PR. There's a lot of interest in specialists out there."

His view of social media is quite holistic, almost to the point where you could call these specialists "online marketing specialists."

For example, you can take any part of his statement, swap the order, and still be left with a valid statement:

  • SEO is part social media, audience development, part advertising, and part PR.

  • PR is part SEO, part audience development, part advertising, and part social media.

  • Audience development is part SEO, part social media, part advertising, and part PR.

  • Advertising is part SEO, part audience development, part social media, and part PR.

So although Tobin feels that "social is a totally different discipline," he is actually demonstrating how social media marketing is just a component of the larger marketing machine. It may be "different," but it's not a sovereign nation. Based on his definition of social media marketing, you have to know SEO, audience development, PR, and general advertising methods and strategies in order to be called a social media specialist. In my opinion, if you know how to leverage all the above, you're much more than a social media specialist.

A difference in definition

Here lies the issue: The definition of social media marketing is quite vague and can vary from person to person. The customer service manager would say social media marketing is all about supporting customer service efforts. The SEO guru would say it's a component of a larger SEO strategy. The vice president of sales would say it's simply a way to push products to followers and just get them to buy. The PR director would argue it helps build and maintain brand awareness. And of course the recent college grad with a marketing degree that grew up with social media would say it's just posting stuff to a company's Facebook page.

So what's the correct definition?

This argument is just starting to heat up, and I'm interested in hearing other opinions. In the end, it's just about meeting expectations. When a company seeks out the services of a social media agency, some may only be looking for community management; others may be looking for the whole enchilada. But since many different types of agencies use the moniker "social media" in different ways, it can get confusing. So I'll leave it up to the industry to figure out if it's time for a name change or if Ignite Social Media should just start considering itself a "full service social media agency."

David Waterman is director of search engine optimization and content development at The Search Agency.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Hand writing Risk on whiteboard" image via Shutterstock.

As the Director of Search Engine Optimization at The Search Agency, David Waterman manages all SEO efforts for an assortment of clients. He has over 8 years of Search Engine Optimization experience with a specific emphasis on content optimization...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Ryan Thogmartin

2012, August 21

I agree with @Michael Lis. It is true, most companies that offer online services; SEO, PR, seem to also offer Social Media services. Thats the problem.

What separates "Social Media Agency" from a company that provides "social media services" is the strategy process. A focused process that enables a brand to share their story with measurable ROI through achievement of quantified goals. Its more than a nice looking page and posting random thoughts daily.

Social media agencies help clients create a "social business".

Commenter: Michael Lis

2012, August 21

I miss Fax Marketing Agencies so much, they righty the top of my list with How To Use Windows Agencies!

I was happy to see the whole social media agency argument come up in this post. We have been missing this type of conversation for some time now.

I take @ Jim Tobin's side in this discussion not because I own a social media agency but because PR Firms, SEO Firms and even Digital Agencies don't understand how to correctly design a social media strategy for a company.

Organizations like this can manage and report on social media channels to companies, for sure .... But they fail in strategically helping companies with social media. This is the primary reason why we saw General Motors pull its ad spend from Facebook. Other than brand awareness they saw a failed social media effort - if only they had a social media agency.

Maybe one point that @ Jim Tobin misses in his repossne is that a social media agency understands how SEO, and for that matter Bought and Owned media play a role in social media. Without this type of understanding utilizing social media would be fruitless. Basically the same way a Fax Marketer needs to know how the phone line works or how promotional faxes are written ;)

What I'm getting at is that social media isn't a stand alone medium it works in conjunction with a company's other forms of media. I know there are those that would argue that social media strategy is just an abbreviated version of an overall communication strategy. I don't believe this to be true. A good social media agency will comprise a social media strategy that entails:
- establishing goals
- researching and understanding how a company's audience behaves on social networks
- defining the correct social channels
- managing these channels with governance and daily detail
- reporting and being agile in changing the message - and even the channel

Most of all what separates a good social media agency apart is being able to generate 'stories' based on a company's values. Fans are not interacting with one form of content on social networks. They are looking for a mix of promotions, relative questions, real world conversation and calls to action. I haven't seen a PR Firm, SEO Firm or Digital Agency that has delivered this in four years. Call me biased.

Great discussion - it made my Tuesday morning a little more fun.

Commenter: Grant Simmons

2012, August 20

I take David's side on this. Not just because I sit across the office from him :-)

Just as in any expert discipline, there's true experts and then there's practitioners.

At The Search Agency (and this isn't a sales pitch either) we're experts in many online marketing disciplines and practitioners in others.

We don't pretend (or offer) to be the agency that creates the next Old Spice campaign, but we do integrate different expertise into our core disciplines, so you will see Social Media recommendations in our SEO process, and Landing Page recommendations in our SEM business, and overall online strategies that integrate with offline media buys / campaigns.

NOTHING online happens in isolation.

The challenge we see is where Social Media 'experts' are all of a sudden experts in other disciplines without any thought to integration, cause and effect, or 'bigger picture' strategy.

NOTE: It's also a little jealousy where Social Media is often not tied to the same 'traditional' online metrics to prove value, it's a checklist item or a buzzword that doesn't need the same justification.

Social Media agencies aren't truly a 'farce' (words in David's mouth), but they are held to different standards (currently) and part of David's point is that they need to, are, or will evolve into a more defined category, offering more standardized offerings and have better metrics to justify expenses (it's getting there).

I remember 12+ years ago when I first got involved with "SEO", we were cowboys back then, and now we're (almost) organized... maybe it's just wild west time for Social Media right now until a new Sheriff hits town to round up the social cowpoke. :-)

Commenter: David Waterman

2012, August 20

Thanks @Lucia Davis. I intended this piece to be more of a warning...a warning that goes beyond social media. FYI, here's the ADWEEK article where the social media agency discussion first began: http://www.adweek.com/news/technology/agencies-start-get-really-anti-social-141724.

Commenter: Lucia Davis

2012, August 20


The title didn't come from the author -- it's something that iMedia thought was appropriate for the piece. David is a great writer and these are awesome ideas! Really glad this is sparking conversation.

Commenter: David Waterman

2012, August 20

@Jim Tobin: Agree about avoiding duplicate efforts. But that's where I fear there are limitations. True, social media can be leveraged in many different ways, but only in supplementing existing efforts. Rarely is it the core.

Actually, social media and SEO are similar in this way. Both supplement existing efforts but are important to know how to leverage within these existing efforts and can make a world of difference. The issue comes in regards to the longevity of client engagements. Since both are supplemental to existing in-house efforts, often times I see that such supplemental services are cut due to companies integrating similar services within their organization or marketing budget limitations (often due to the difficulty of showing direct ROI). I'll even admit SEO is a little worse off compared to social media, but only because we're further down the road. We've had our hype days but the hype is fading. SEO is even being considered dead by some. But as search marketing professionals, we know that it's not dead...it's evolving. You need a more holistic approach to it. Whether that entails making sure you integrate more elements of search marketing within an engagement (including social media) or just making a name change (content marketing?), I agree that evolution is necessary for agencies that offer SEO or only offer it. I feel the same will happen for social media and that eventually we'll both exist under some new name (just like @Colin Clark said, it may all boil down to semantics).

Commenter: Jim Tobin

2012, August 20

@David, I'm a big fan of not duplicating efforts. And virtually all of our clients have existing PR, SEO, customer service, etc. teams. We don't want to replicate any of those. Take SEO: We want to see what keywords our clients are trying to rank for and we want to see how our promotions can help with that, but we don't want to do what your firm would do in terms of page optimization, etc. etc. etc. We know how social can help SEO, but we're otherwise not SEO experts.

And customer service, we want to integrate with our clients customer service teams, either by getting the customer to the right place quickly or bringing the support to the customer (depending on the client's setup).

Then we'll go out and figure out how we can apply social media marketing principles to drive their business objectives in new way, whether that's increased SEO for certain keywords, increased traffic to branded websites from social properties, increased goal conversion, etc. etc.

There's certainly plenty to do!

Commenter: David Waterman

2012, August 20

@Jim Tobin: Hello Jim! I'm glad you commented. Haha the "fax media agency" analogy was definitely more tongue-in-cheek. But you hit the nail on the head. I feel that because everyone is claiming that they "do" social media, the term "social media" is getting watered down. I have no doubt in my mind your agency embraces and practices all areas of social media, and overlaps into other areas of search marketing to provide true social media marketing strategies. The term "social media" feels too restrictive to me. Maybe it's because I've come across too many "I can do social media" experts that just didn't "do" true social media marketing.

In regards to your more recent comment about an SEO agency having blinders on the full potential of social media, definitely a fair and valid point. As a social media agency, what's your sales pitch? Do you say you'll come in and evaluate how to integrate social media into a company's PR, online and customer service efforts? How do you integrate with a company's existing PR, online and customer service efforts/teams?

Commenter: Colin Clark

2012, August 20

I think in some ways you're just arguing semantics. If a firm has core competencies in advertising, PR, SEO etc and they want to use those skills to specifically help clients with social media, then why shouldn't they position themselves as experts in that field?

I think the real issue is that there are a ton of 'experts' out there who aren't actually any good at delivering results for clients. However, I see this with almost every field as well. There are advertising, web design, SEO, and PR firms out there that simply aren't any good! Social media is no different.

Also, there are a lot of specialized skills that go into social media marketing that don't fit into other fields.

The fact is that social media is a proven way to market a business, and anything that's proven to work will have an industry of experts that will spring up to deliver the services needed to help companies succeed.

Commenter: Jim Tobin

2012, August 20

@David: You say, "Social media and SEO are components of search marketing." Thank you for proving my point. You show that an SEO agency is going to have blinders on when it comes to how social media can be used. Yes, it can help SEO. But that's blind to the other 75% of things it can do...

Search agencies should use social. Ad agencies definitely should think about social. PR firms must consider social.

And social media agencies use elements of SEO, PR, advertising and web development to focus on the broader uses of our specialty.

Commenter: David Waterman

2012, August 20

@Kyle Young: Very true. Every aspect of search marketing, including social media, is complex and requires specialists to effectively execute these strategies.My thoughts are that from a service/agency perspective, it's better to know how to collectively leverage these aspects of search marketing and have specialists within your organization within each discipline who work together to provide complete strategies and execution. I feel a "social media agency" is limiting their potential the same way a "SEO agency" is. Social media and SEO are components of search marketing. The Search Agency, for example, doesn't just offer SEO services. In fact, its origins are based in SEM and has evolved over time to include SEO, display, social media and landing page optimization. And no, this isn't a sales pitch. It's an example of how I suggest social media agencies evolve. :)

Commenter: Kyle Young

2012, August 20

This is an odd POV from a fellow who comes from a highly specialized agency that focuses on SEO. One could just as easily write an article called "Why Search Agencies are a Farce" to argue that search is "is just a component of the larger marketing machine." Of course it is. It is also complex, and an agency with a depth of knowledge in SEM and SEO may be of real value to a client who wants more qualified traffic to their website. I'm not sure how an agency that specializes in the social space is different. The whole landscape of digital marketing is complex and agencies that focus on specialized services reflect that reality.

Commenter: Jim Tobin

2012, August 20

Fax media agencies? Really? David, you miss the whole point.

I don't use PR skills to do PR. Like the other disciplines you mention, we apply those skills toward one thing, social media marketing.

I think the more apt analogy is the 90s, when digital agencies like Razorfish were popping up. And folks like you would say, "That's funny, once ad agencies learn HTML, these digital agencies will be gone." How'd that work out?

Social media is a completely different discipline than building websites. And people who specialize in it, like us, are going to be better at it. Each day, it gets more complex, not less. That's why some of the most sophisticated marketers in the world (Chrysler, Samsung, Microsoft, P&G) have hired us to handle this for them.

I agree, everyone is claiming they can "do" social media today, and that's confusing. But that doesn't make it any less important to find folks who really understand the ramifications of marketing in a two-way world.