‘Social Media Agency’: Fad or Revolution?

Have you noticed a growing number of companies hiring “social media” agencies?

I certainly have. In fact, I’ve been responding to calls from companies for social media agencies for at least two years or so and some of these calls have been for pretty lucrative projects and long-term engagements. But, to be honest, I’ve wondered if this was a fad that would hit hard but quick, or if we were experiencing something new. That is, were we actually experiencing the formation of a different sort of an agency being brought to life through a new kind of need?

Whatever the case was at that point, we (meaning me and many others in this industry) certainly jumped on the opportunity, responding back to those requests for proposals and carefully crafting new agency raps extolling our abilities. I don’t mean to say that we were merely opportunists, but rather we responded to the current need that our clients had and (the best of us) saw this as a new-but-unique channel through which we could drive business and achieve goals. That is to say, none of us really knew in 2008 if we would be getting social media request for proposals (RFPs) in 2011.

Well, guess what: we are. In fact, the pace of this line of business seems to be picking up. The agency Big Fuel (which has modern advertising legend Jon Bond as its CEO) recently won what was reported to be a seven-figure engagement to perform social media duties for T-Mobile. This assignment from T-Mobile is not to replace its interactive, creative, or media agency. This is a net-new piece of work, and a significant one at that.

Our industry has expanded. It’s time to figure out what it means.

Social Media Services

The problem with social media (and therefore, the problem with hiring a company to do social media for you) is that social media is not so much a thing as it is a way. What we generally call social is really a collection of business practices from advertising to support to retention services to satisfaction and advocacy. While the consumer has a solid and clear understanding of the difference between a commercial on television and a call to customer service, the same can’t necessarily be said of their concept of a Twitter feed.

When the calls go out for a social media agency, there tends to be at least five big areas of services that a brand is looking for:

  • Acquisition (brands want help increasing their audience in social media)
  • Engagement (brands want help getting fans involved in the conversation)
  • Advocacy (brands want help having messages spread through the network)
  • Governance (brands want clear rules on operating in social media)
  • Creative (brands want content that can be used in social media)

Of course, the best RFPs and the most serious brands are going to look first and foremost for a strategy that is going to underpin all of this. I’d love to say that, over the years, social media RFPs have evolved away from simple tactics (“we want a Facebook page”) and gotten more sophisticated. But the RFPs that ask for social media services to serve a particular goal remain in the minority. Of course, those are also the ones that produce the best work. The reason is simple: if you can get smart marketing people to think about a goal, and then give them a tool, you’ll get success. It doesn’t matter what the tool is, as long as the smart people understand it. If you go the other way (give smart people a tool and ask them to do something with it), your chances of success are no better than a roll of the dice.

How to Send Out/Respond to a Social Media RFP

I do believe that we will continue to see more social media RFPs in the near future, which really means that we’ll see more brands establishing specific social media practices in the near future. While this is a net-new agency service, I don’t think it is necessarily an entirely new practice. Not considering strategy, which should be a consistent element through all work, we should think of social media services as a mashup of a few other, more familiar services. If you are on either end of a social media RFP (sending or receiving), you should think about these core practices first.

The first service is creative development. There are certainly some new formats and guidelines for the building content to go on social media. But don’t think about it as just some tweet or set of images. These are impressions that you are placing upon your audience and they should be of the best quality you can muster.

The other is media placement. I have long used the language of media to describe the work done within a social campaign. For example, we don’t “post” content, we “traffic” it, just like we would with an ad. That means it is planned, placed, and measured.

The last big one is community management. This is a tricky one. I’ve had community managers working on projects for a long, long time. But we always thought of their work based on their title: they managed a community. They kept it focused on the topic, kicked off the bad people, and provided topics for discussion. Now, we want them to do all that, but the goal is not to manage the community; it is to manage the community to grow value for our clients. These people are now the most front-facing component of a campaign. They can’t just be there to manage the community, because “the community” is the entire point of the campaign.

And that, I suppose, is the bottom line on all of this. There are more social media RFPs coming because more brands are taking social media very seriously. And they are taking it very seriously because they are not just seeking to fill a new channel with their message. They are not thinking about social media as a thing, but as a way – a way to connect more closely with their consumers.

Which is really a good thing for all of us. Let’s agree to make sure that we take the opportunity to either bring in an agency or be the agency brought in to social media to make sure that this isn’t just a trend, but in fact a revolution. The dollars are there to justify, for sure. But most importantly, so is the opportunity.

This column was originally published on July 15, 2011 on ClickZ.

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