Beware of Vendors Pushing Social Media Retainers

The following is draft material for the second edition of Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print. Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

empty suits

A lot has been said about the dangers of working with a so-called social media expert. In 2008, the running joke was that more than 10,000 bios on Twitter had the self described social media expert moniker. But in addition to independents who brand themselves as the harbinger of conversational results, organizations need to beware of communications agencies seeking healthy social media retainers.

There are several areas of concern with communications agencies. For starters, a focus on outsourcing robs the company or nonprofit of an authentic voice representing the culture. Good consultants and agencies demand that there be some sort of community manager on the inside. This is just part of the transparency and genuine voice that people have come to expect from organizations representing themselves online.

Retainers rarely deliver the cost equivalency for capacity to execute social media. By far the most expensive aspect of online communications is labor. For $100,000, an organization can employ a full time community manager. But for a $100,000 annual retainer, the firm won’t get someone full time, and they are likely to be an intern or a newly minted communicator with little supervision.

One-size fits all shops with multiple forms of communications services have a hard time delivering excellence across all types of outreach: direct, advertising, PR, interactive and social. Like a department store, good may be the best you can get, while other areas may be lacking, eventually driving you to a specialty shop. Perhaps the best analogy is that of the mercenary: Rarely do they fight well in battle, as compared to soldiers defending their own soil.

You may need a firm to show your team how to build capacity and how to engage online. In such a case the consultancy or agency should be focused on transforming culture, creating guidelines and building capacity as opposed to making themselves a long term partner. Again, it comes down to building a social culture that can engage with its stakeholders across the line.

Many communications firms have seen their businesses fracture with the dot com bubble and now the Great Recession. High priced retainers for young talent are oft the first area cut. With the transferral of media power from the Fourth to the Fifth Estate, most firms claim social media competence with little internal expertise across their front line. This seems to be a desperate attempt to stay relevant. While the social media services messaging may match the agency’s traditional services approach of promising results based on market needs, the delivery often lacks.

Like all communications firms, it comes down to the account team and who will be working on your account, and what is their experience. While Edelman in particular has done an excellent job accompanying its PR services with an equally strong group of social media minds, generally speaking beware of the upsell from your communications firm.

We Don’t Want to Hire

Sometimes organizations don’t want to hire online communicators for a wide variety of business reasons. However, when it comes down to the core function of community management, you will need an internal voice, whether that’s transforming someone’s job description to include this or hiring a new employee. There is no escaping this truth.

Beyond the daily rigors of community management, the ebbs and flows of an online communications effort may call for outside help. Some organizations like to use a communications firm or consultancy to perform monitoring services. Others prefer to bring them in to augment the staff with online specialists for large projects, such as marketing for SxSW, the largest interactive conference in the United States.

The bigger your organization, the more likely this is to be, and the more likely your organization will have a social media retainer. Each organization needs to decide to build more capacity and scale social across to the organization or to outsource. What’s right will depend on your business.