What Role Should Agencies Play In Social Media Marketing?

With social media getting so much attention in the industry, it's not surprising that there's been a massive land grab by agencies of all shapes and sizes. Agencies recognize the tranformative nature of social technologies and with nearly $1 billion in social media budgets already forecasted for 2010, it's no surprise that agencies are trying to get a jump on the expertise. This creates a lot of confusion for interactive marketers. So much so that a few agency folks actually got together recently to write a joint blog post to point out how they differ ("co-opetition"). Yet each type of agency comes at social media with a distinct strong suit. For instance:

  • PR agencies tend to be stronger in working with earned media -- specifically working with influentials.
  • Interactive agencies tend to be better at building out owned media (like communities and social net pages), have expertise in technology, and understand things like the relationship between social media and search marketing.
  • Traditional creative agencies and media planning/buying agencies tend to focus on how social media fits into paid media campaigns (i.e., advertising) because, well, that's been the focus of their business for the last century.
  • Other new agencies like WOM specialists and even a new set of social agencies (e.g., Powered, Converseon, Digital Influence Group) are popping up, but they're still mostly nascent and don't dominate the space.


These are generalities and there are definitely exceptions to the rule. Yet the reality is while many of these agencies are helping their clients with strategy and even organizational structure, they're mainly playing a support role. Why? Because most marketers want to have the conversations directly with their customers. They don't want a middle man either talking for them or adding another layer of people to the communication process. As one social marketer recently told us, their agency acts as their arms and legs, ears and eyes, sometimes their brain but NEVER their mouth. Only employees are allowed to talk to their customers. And while some companies, usually ones with limited resources (like some in the B2B space), do allow their agencies to speak on their behalf, we have found it is becoming very uncommon (we'll have data on this soon).

So what should you do to make sure your agencies are helping you effectively manage your social marketing? Start with these steps:

  • Set clear roles. Start by determing whether or not you want an outside party speaking on your behalf. Then identify what you need from an outsourcing perspective and look internally at your current agency skill sets. You may only need a good interactive agency to help you build out assets or you may need help across the board. Once you know what you need, make sure to identify the roles each agency plays and draw a line so the land grab doesn't continue.
  • Find out what social skills your agency really has. Start by looking at their actual experience as well as their own practice in it. A lot of agencies don't even use social tools themselves, which puts them in a poor position to be giving you advice on how to use them.
  • Demand data analysis, not just collection. Agencies are great at collecting information, but they're not always so adept at synthesizing the data and then telling their clients what it means to their business. There's a lot of lip service to "insights" but it's crucial for your agencies to be able to make sense of the information that's pouring in in real time while also helping you determine when to take action.


Most marketers want to have

Most marketers want to have the conversations directly with their customers? True. More importantly, most customers want to have the conversations directly with marketers.

I would say instead that most

I would say instead that most customers want to have conversations directly with the companies and bypass the marketers altogether.

Ron, companies that sell

Ron, companies that sell stuff are, by default, marketers.

I have to disagree. Marketers

I have to disagree. Marketers are the artificial layer created between the company and the customer. Social media has the capacity to strip away that layer and provide a way for customers to speak directly to the company.

But who is the company then?

But who is the company then? It's a misconception that there is Mrs Parker behind a desk at Mrs Parker's Coffee.

As pointed out, if you are selling a product, you are marketing it. What you are really trying to say is that social can provide a two way conversation and perhaps even make it easier for people to engage with people in specific areas of responsibility. As oposed to relying on a marketer or communications person to forward them on.


You mean like when you call a

You mean like when you call a customer service line and talk to some warehouse full of people that just answer the phone on behalf of the company that is outsourcing to them? Don't be fooled, when you "talk directly" to a company, you rarely actually talk to people that work at the company.

And I think you're expecting too much of social media to think that it can scale to allow that kind of direct interaction with people that work directly in a company. I'm not saying agency's have to do it (or should), but if you want social media to be a major channel for "conversations" with customers, there won't be enough people internally at a company to allow that kind of scale.


Then you have the marketers that also do the production. Marketing is a function, not an indvidual. And you have to be able to do the function or you get nothing.

I appear at your site. Odds are I'm not necessarily going to have a good idea of what I want, or of what you offer unless I communicate with someone or read something. Marketing.


Great post

Thanks for posting, interesting topic, and I'm sure we'll see more on this--and best practices come out--as the field deveolops.

Comment on your comment system

It's cool that your comments are threaded, but feedback to make them work better: Unless I'm missing something, there's not a default field for the URL, for your Web site or other profile. Additionally, when you're notified of comments via email, you have to click through to the post to see the comments -- versus receive them in the notification email. (And the link didn't work on my Blackberry.) Also, you can't respond to comments via email. Cheers.

outsourcing social media

You've done a great job in defining the fine line between agency/client roles in social media. Looking at how agencies themselves are using social networks has a lot to do with their expertise. If they don't effectively brand themselves with social networks, why should someone trust their own brand with them?

I think the actual execution of social campaigns should be distributed betweent the two parties. The agencies actually showing the client the tools and introducing how to present the brand. However, I believe the actual communication should lie with the client. Their customers want to talk to the brand themselves, not the middle man.


Sean - thanks for the mention of Powered Inc (the company I work for) and the link to the blog post that Adam, Todd and I put together last month on Agency co-opetition. As you mention in your post, it's becoming increasingly difficult for brands to determine who they should work with to help them with their social strategy and execution. Hopefully your post sheds a little bit of light on how brands should be thinking about this process and if they ever need someone to include in their RFI/RFP process, Powered is always happy to participate. ;)

Aaron | @aaronstrout

New kinds of social agencies

From an agency perspective, I find our best fit for social media with our clients is in the strategy as well - precisely because it's NOT in a companies best interest to outsource their "voice". Consumers want to deal with people, not logos - and while having an agency develop content may be acceptable, tweeting with a middle man is not.

Great advice here for any client looking to hire or judge their current social media agency.

Great comments

Thanks for all of the comments. To address some of the earlier points - I agree that consumers would rather communicate directly with marketers. I also agree that marketers are an artificial layer between brands and customers. Yet this is because marketers are not usually set up to do the direct kind of conversation needed in social. I think over time our definition of marketing will continue to evolve and marketers will be much closer to the ground through social conversation - with their agencies supporting them through strategy, build, maintenance and intelligence.

Do-It-Yourself Social Marketing

We set small businesses up with social media platforms, and we're finding a great hunger among them to do their own social media marketing. We come across business owners hugely frustrated by websites they've purchased in years past that don't allow them to manage their own content and integrate their social media conversations.

Among small businesses, anyway, there's rarely the desire for anyone to "be their mouth." They understand the paramount value of the genuine conversation. They just need help setting up the tools and learning the ground rules.

The agency model for that, then, becomes more of a consultant or coach.

Other new agencies are "still mostly nascent"??

Hi Sean

RE: the "still mostly nascent" comment, you should perhaps expand your horizons outside of the U.S. and see how this is panning out in Europe and Asia?

http://wearesocial.net/ would be a good place to start.


Lovely post. Bookmarked!

We've been discussing this positioning issue for the past year with RAAK.
I'm sure that we will continue to do so in this ever-changing media landscape, but this article will definitely come in handy to clarify a few things to potential clients.
Thanks for that!

I think there is a sub-model, where that new breed of agencies that don't know what to call themselves (we prefer to call ourselves a 'plug-in') are partnering up with the traditional agencies.
Nothing new, it's simply subcontracting, but that collaboration could happen more openly.
We are for instance working directly with a PR agency to help them make sense of some Social Media things, which is working very well for both parties.

Also some nice thoughts on the middle man.
We wrote about the role of the Social Media Administrator last September (http://www.wewillraakyou.com/2009/09/the-outsourced-and-in-house-social-...), where we say that the in-house role would work better for bigger companies. It makes the connection more direct.

So to a certain extent, you could argue that part of the role of a 'Social Media agency' (whatever that is) is to make themselves redundant i.e. to make Social Media part of an organisation's DNA.

And once an organisation is Social Media Ready, all type of agencies can start building on that foundation.

Thanks again.

Gerrie :: @grrRAAK