How to Choose a Social Marketing’Expert’ or Agency

Time to read: 6 minutes.

In a digital advertising world filled with hype, spin and flat out lies it’s hard to make reliable, strategic decisions about investing in social technologies or strategies.  What people or agencies should you say yes and no to?  What’s the qualification process in an evolving, “standards-less” industry?  Realizing that everyone’s got a good reference or two lying around… how do you qualify social media/marketing experts and agencies in particular?  Here’s my quick tip on how to find and qualify professionals who are focused on real, tangible social marketing outcomes.

Do they ask WHY?

When it comes to social media, social networking and marketing using everything from Bebo and Facebook to Twitter few digital specialists ever ask WHY?  Nearly everywhere I go and everything I read — none of the experts dare suggest that online social strategies are a place that could very well yield marketers nothing at all… or not enough.  If they do the sentiment is offered in reaction to your suggesting it!

Do they ask questions as part of a method?

Many social marketing experts are failing to provide a methodology to make decisions from — first understand IF social technology has use within your business and, if so, how to make smart investments. Again, their approach often assumes you’ve already arrived at the decision.  If this is missing from your conversation it’s time to move on.

Are the questions they ask irrelevant, focused mainly on tactical value or bordering on irresponsible?

No, really.  There’s plenty of this going around.  Here’s an example of what Michael Kahn of Performics suggests executives ask of their experts:

  1. Are we using Twitter to help boost our site traffic?
  2. Are we using Twitter to improve our search rankings?
  3. Are we tapping Twitter to sell seasonal merchandise and excess inventory?
  4. Is Twitter helping our search and reputation management efforts?
  5. Are we doing more than distributing static news and chatter?

Now I don’t mean to pick on Michael here but this is a perfect example of what I, personally, find to be silly.  If this is representative (and it may be!) of where our minds are as marketers — our raw intelligence — then I’m more than sad I’m frightened.  Do we need to ask ourselves simplistic or ridiculous questions? (ie. “are we actively wasting time and energy?”)  If we make investment decisions based on their ability to boost site traffic or improve search rankings — today — we’re in trouble.  These are tactical questions not strategic.

I also have a hard time recommending using tools like Twitter to simply distribute promotions or clear overstock.  I’m simply not compelled unless such distribution delivers incremental value (ie. it can be proved that Twitter sometimes delivers what email cannot).

Do they “signal” their understanding of what “results” means and does it match your business goal?

Jonathan Paisner and Bill Westcott do a perfect job of this when they come right out and say SouthWest Airlines, “did not manage to grab the fare in this case, but they garnered buzz and demonstrated their brand values and social media savvy.”

Again, not to pick on Jonathan and Bill — who I don’t know — but they describe a scene where SouthWest was out to actively poach a customer complaining about JetBlue via Twitter.  Cool.  The outcome?  A failure.  No big deal but to Mr. Paisner and Westcott this failure was still a win in terms of how it, they think, made people feel or think about SouthWest.  This definition of branding is tired and, many suggest, all bud dead.  Had this encounter made people act differently it would have actually mattered.  Who knows it may actually have for Southwest…

Again, let’s look at the questions these two experts ask YOU to ask (of yourself) in making critical decisions about social marketing strategy:

  1. Will it be an overtly corporate-sponsored initiative with corporate-branded resources or with objectively positioned brand ambassadors? There are pros and cons.
  2. Should you establish personalities and personae with your participation or use your account functionally to distribute deals or tips related to your products? Too much self-promotion can be bad, but everybody loves a deal.
  3. Do you look to actively engage prospects or do you simply hang out your shingle to let folks know you are available? Depends on what you’re looking to accomplish.

Again, in my humble opinion these are mostly tactical questions — not aimed at business outcomes nor focused on accountable (measurable, analytical) use of social technologies.  They’re also inherently squishy in this case — pose more questions than answers.

As an industry we need to consider how ridiculous we’re sounding.  Again, everyone seems to agree when it comes to social media.  It’s good for everyone, anytime, anywhere — so long as you have a good strategy, of course.  Who can’t agree to that?

My point: There’s no debate around the WHY and no plans to slow down and QUESTION (examine for tangible results) spending across Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, MySpace, LinkedIn et al.

Why is there no discussion about why?

Rather, there is “faux debate” about social marketing.  Sorry, readers, but I cannot help myself.  Illustration:  DM News “forced” Chris Johnson Founder, Terralever and Aviva Cuyler, Founder/CEO, JD Supra (23 years of combined marketing prowess) to square off — without gloves, oh my!  The topic:

“What’s the Real Value in Facebook”

Wow.  Sounds good so far.  Let’s tune in…

Johnson’s take:  A “resounding yes” to having your brand create a page on Facebook.   Why?  Here’s where it gets absolutely rediculous.

  1. It’s  a “low-risk option to get your brand involved in social media… allows fans of your brand to engage both with the brand and with others who share the brand love.”
  2. It’s “a great opportunity… to distribute your content to the community… it’s an even better environment for your brand fanatics to share their thoughts, engaging at a deeper level with the brand.”
  3. Facebook designs its Web site consistently around facilitating the above.

Business outcomes involved for brands?  None mentioned beyond “the more engaged your fans are, the more social stories they will generate, and the more traffic your Facebook page will get.”  Compelled?  I’m not.

But wait, says Johnson “If you don’t cre­ate the ‘official’ presence for your brand on Facebook, someone else probably will.”

Aaah, yes.  Fear over the Wild-Wild-Westness of it all.  Fear that some goon will come along and impersonate you, Mr./Ms. Marketer.  Over a decade later this is how we rationalize our Web investment decisions?  This is patently silly.

Ms. Cuyler’s take:  Facebook is a “no-brainer.”  (No, really… this is the debate)

Ms. Cuyler goes on to suggest that it’s a no-brainer — but not for reasons you’d expect.

“The key is to make your brand’s Facebook page one of just many high-profile ‘presence outposts’ on the Web, and plant your flag in many places.”

I wouldn’t expect that?!  This is unfamiliar thinking??  Again, why is Ms. Cuyler afraid — to the extent that she’ll feign a ‘debate’ (and shame also on DM News in this regard) — to actually disagree and play the foil?  Rather, Ms. Cuyler is parroting that familiar social media mantra we’ve been hearing from social media gurus for a while now and packaging it as critical thinking.

Again, in my humble opinion, your goal as a marketer exploring online social media and marketing should be to locate people who are focused on real, tangible social marketing outcomes not nebulous, un-accounable “forms of engagement.” It follows that you pay close attention to the questions being asked of you — and bear in mind the difference between a strategic thought and a tactical one.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks Jeff for the comments and review. My proposed questions above can be construed as tactical but I would argue that what social marketing discussions need is a lot more practical and tactical applications and proof points and less high art. To date, the social dialogue has been conceptual, operating at around 100,000 feet. Words like socialization, sharing, collaboration, collectivism all get bantered around but what many marketers are looking for are activities that will drive engagement, build relationships and deliver customer acquisition (now or in the future). In hindsight, I wish I had started with two more questions for a CMO to ask his social experts…”How, if at all, are we using Twitter as part of our marketing mix?” “What do we know about our customers use of Twitter and should this inform our efforts?”

    Thanks.

    Michael

  2. Rok says

    I totally agree with Michael.

    I don’t think businesses need more “high in the sky” sales pitches and grand ideas, but rather need to focus more on what is driving business.

  3. says

    Hi, Michael…
    Thanks for your thoughts. That said, with all due respect, I think we’re on different planets.

    You say “the social dialogue has been conceptual, operating at around 100,000 feet.” I say I just don’t see it. I see people jumping in and DOING without offering much critical thought or reason beyond what “experts” (self appointed) say to do and a never-ending belief that “if it’s new and on the Web we MUST be doing it.”

    You say “what many marketers are looking for are activities that will drive engagement, build relationships and deliver customer acquisition (now or in the future).” I say that’s what they’re doing — and doing so without clear purpose and certainly without proper measurement AND fiscal accountability. They’re FAILING to connect the tactics to the strategic business outcomes. If they weren’t failing I’d not be reading stuff like this http://budurl.com/kkac

    Ok — so maybe marketers are looking for that but the CEO, CFO is looking for far more than short-term tactical wins that don’t tie to strategic objectives.

    Rok — I do believe you are either baiting discussion or being lazy (not likely). Who could possibly argue your point? Only a fool so I’m not sure that you’re in alignment with anyone here :)

  4. says

    Great post, Jeff. I’d take this further to suggest that all service and product providers should ask WHY? when it comes to helping clients leverage any kind of tool or technique. And all potential clients should wonder if the provider isn’t asking more questions than they are answering!

  5. says

    Social media companies are popping up like roaches much like SEM companies did 5 or 6 years ago…I think the best social strategy is to use Ping.fm.

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