There is no perfect system or right way to nimbly and effectively manage social media. Your current results from earned media and engagement should be your guide on whether you have a successful structure in place or not. But no matter how your social is handled, strategy and creativity should live together in harmony.
It's been a decade since Facebook launched, and brands have many options for managing social media. They include keeping the function in-house, leveraging their PR firm, hiring specialized social agencies, or working with a full-service shop that also handles all brand creative work. None of these options are mutually exclusive, as multi-organizational hybrid models are popular as well.
Begin with identifying your needs, objectives, and expectations from social, at which point you can narrow down who and how to bring dimension to your brand online. It's important to pick the right partner who is curious, gets the space, and understands your business.
And the reality is usually a collaborative effort with a person or persons in the decision-making seat, working together to create a consistent brand voice, while coordinating paid amplification. Let's look at the potential players for managing a brand's social efforts and some of the pros and cons of each.
This option is generally the least expensive, but most time-intensive. Many times, in-house social is relegated to remnant time, as you focus on the primary business at hand. Unless you are, for example, a clothing retailer who has been able to leverage and measure social media for bottom-funnel revenue driving, it can be difficult getting the proper focus of an organization.
Most brands are still unable at this point to show the direct impact of their social efforts. Thus, even larger brands that have multiple team members can struggle taking on all the tasks required, including creating digital content, publishing, moderation, and analysis to produce insights that are required to build an effective social practice.
Understanding the nuances of social means that you also need to learn and then re-learn the platform changes that occur month to month. It's not just high-level strategies but executional nuances that are requisite for the job. What is the 20 percent rule for Facebook ads? How about the preview pane dimensions for Twitter? Do YouTube annotations work on mobile? What is the organic reach of Facebook posts? How much content is consumed in the Tumblr newsfeed, as opposed to going directly to your front-facing Tumblr page? Should you use native players or YouTube embeds? What about hashtags on Facebook with its privacy restrictions?
If you balk at any of these questions, you either have a ton of learning ahead, or you should not manage in-house alone. Even if you are a pro at managing your personal social media channels, the amount of effort it takes to manage social across multiple platforms, day in and day out for a brand, can be overwhelming.
These agencies are good for many things, including crisis management, and generating positive earned media, which can be critical to social reach. But before you can pitch, you need good social stories and content. PR agencies have been expanding more and more into content creation and community management. The upside of PR agencies is they are hungry to expand into social as a new profit center. This allows them to always be on the forefront of what is new, and have staff dedicated to community management.
The potential downside is that often PR agencies focus more on delivering the brand to earned media outlets rather than executing it effectively through owned. PR companies are not creative agencies. And shooting content, art direction, and video production are historically not a core PR capability. While organic buzz generating social efforts can rack up free earned impressions and engagement for the brand, there is also the risk of focusing on the wrong things like newsjacking versus creating digital content that is engaging and rolls up to a larger strategy. They also generally can have less experience managing and executing the paid media piece, which is critical to success.
Social media agencies
As social media agencies become more in fashion, large holding companies are gobbling them up. Social media agencies have dedicated teams, a decent bench, art directors, producers, and writers who can deliver smart, branded content. And as part of a larger group of agencies they can manage -- or a sister company can manage -- paid media effectively.
However, social media agencies become more expensive, and are not always exposed to the full brand platform picture, particularly if there is a more creative-focused agency as the agency of record. They must execute on the full-service agency idea, which may not have been baked with a social media execution in mind. That said, they are oftentimes quite solid in community management, including moderation, responding to consumers and escalating customer service issues. And generally, social agencies "get" social media. In that regard, they know and love the weeds. The question is: are they able to see the larger picture?
The benefit of a full-service agency is full view of the creative, being able to influence the campaign idea, and having a deep bench of creators to develop and execute an idea. Full-service agencies have historically understood content, as they've been doing it for years, just with a focus on other media. They can use in-house resources like studios, editing bays, and a staff of creatives and producers with seasoned production background and capabilities.
The downside is that some agencies don't give you their most seasoned teams or teams that have digital strategy and content creation as a core competency. Though to be fair, if the strategic brand platform is strong enough, it can be executed through any channel toward any audience.
The strategic vision plus ability to produce strong creative ideas and content are a huge advantage for a full-service agency, even if competencies like community management can sometimes be less encompassing than a stand-alone social agency.
Plus, if the agency runs everything soup to nuts, they generally have a solid media-buying arm that can be more easily integrated into the workflow. (Full disclosure: the authors both work at a full-service agency.)
All of that said, many larger brands have creative agencies, PR firms, and in-house teams all working on social media. A dedicated lead on the brand side combined with a lead agency that focuses on creating and corralling digital content, pushing forward best practices, and publishing and analyzing what is working is, in our experience, a model that works.
Guidelines of hybrid social ownership
With multiple agencies come grayish delineations and multiple teams constantly pitching the client ideas, partnerships, sponsorships, influencer relationships, and content integrations. Because of this, there must be a content calendar to bring some sanity to a system ripe for overreach. Most content is planned (and has been run through the approval gauntlet) ahead of time and, if done correctly, a full content calendar includes the date, platform, message, the image or video, the URL, and whether the post will be promoted or not. It's also important to be nimble and take advantage of unforeseen trends, use social listening for influential opportunities, and execute larger-scale social campaigns in order to operate a successful social practice. At the minimum, a planned calendar approved a month in advance forces more discerning eyes toward these one-off requests.
Quality, not quantity
It should be said, though, that in 2015, more content does not necessarily equal more success. The quantity of content should be driven by the amount and quality of content available coupled with the amount of paid budget allocated to gain visibility for these digital content pieces. Most brands should be past the point of mere "maintenance" of your social networks and more toward cultivating and developing brand advocates who actively engage and share your content. Arbitrary follower counts where most folks do not even see the content being pushed out are more for internal social scoreboards than for actual success in the social space.
One other must is a brand voice and social guidelines document endorsed by the client and distributed (and readily available) to everyone who is working on social media. Consistent voice and messaging is necessary, as is the larger social strategy that is agreed upon by the social media leaders on the team. A hodge-podge of different strategic and creative ideas can be jarring and dismissed by followers of your brand, not to mention ineffective in creating an impactful long-term brand story. These documents of record function both as the guiding strategic light for everyone's efforts and also as a hymn book, so that your content efforts may be proudly sung with the same lyrics.
Ultimately, great content is the keystone of any social media program. Process is great. Uniformity is important. But exceptional digital content that cuts through the clutter is what drives success. True creativity and ideas cannot be mechanized. It all comes down to the "old" social media saying: "Why should people care and share my content?"
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