Who Owns Social Media Campaigns?

Not so terribly long ago, it wasn’t uncommon for companies to entrust their online presence to the nearest digital savant at hand — and savant was a word that was taken lightly. Online gurus often materialized in the form of teenage children, geeky neighbors, and entrepreneurial types taking a step up from desktop publishing ventures.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for best practices and professionals to emerge and take over. It doesn’t matter how well your 13 year old neighbor knows HTML. Because let’s face it, adolescents who can combine tactical skills with developing and executing a solid business strategy are few and far between. Even in a virtual world, the laws of nature still apply.

Now that the who-builds-the-Web-site issue is much, much clearer, a newer digital frontier is muddying the whose-job-is-it waters. So whose job is social media, anyway?

Once again, not a few business owners eager to dip a toe into the promises of participatory digital media are looking to the teenager next door for “professional” assistance. After all, aren’t they the pioneers of social media sites such as MySpace and Facebook? Does having a Twitter account qualify you as a social media marketing guru? Not bloody likely — but who is qualified to hang out a shingle as a “social media marketing consultant” remains very much up for grabs.

The PRs Versus the Searchies

Who should own social media? Public relations (PR) professionals are certainly putting a stake into the ground, and not without reason. After all, a huge component of the participatory Internet is seeding information: stories, content, and news, and helping to foster dissemination.

Looking on with alarm, however are the SEOs (define). Search engine optimization is, after all, a form of public relations. Just as there are no guarantees that “The New York Times” is going to write a story based on your press release, much less run it on page one, there’s no guarantee search engines will crawl or highly rank your Web content. But if you know what you�re doing, you can greatly increase the odds of a favorable outcome.

Left in the hands of PRs, argue the searchies, social media marketing will turn into a tidal wave of spam. We’re the Internet professionals — leave it to us!

They kinda have a point — but as with all professional assessments, it depends on qualifications. I wouldn’t hesitate to hand an online social media campaign to a firm such as Greg Jarboe’s or Sally Falkow’s. These PR pros know search, social media, and the Web backwards.

But theirs are skills honed by years of experience, education, and technical proficiency. The other side of the spectrum is an old acquaintance who’s been in PR forever (let’s call her “Susan”) whose business failed in the current economic climate. Susan joined Facebook a few weeks ago, which she uses to send frequent reminders to her network that she’s desperately seeking freelance assignments. Beyond Facebook and an e-mail account, Susan’s knowledge of the Web is pretty close to zero. Much as I’d like to help out an old friend in need, I could not in good conscience recommend Susan’s services to anyone in my own network.

The other side of the search versus PR equation? While PRs tend to (or should) excel at communication and creatively generating and disseminating content, search skills often tend to be more technical and geekier. Yet I know of at least one major player in search about to walk away from his SEO/SEM firm to form a new venture in the social media space. But this person’s skill set includes years of deep involvement with major global ad agencies and plenty of exposure to the creative and strategic side of building campaigns.

Where Do Agencies Fit In?

Oh, right — ad agencies. Shouldn’t they be duking it out for social media turf, too?

Of course they are. And while many agencies deeply understand the digital landscape, as well as possess strong capabilities in search and in communications, social media marketing skews well off the list of agencies’ core competency, which is creating and placing advertising. Social media is marketing, not that discipline’s advertising subset.

But as traditional offline advertising channels suffer from pressures from which they’re unlikely ever to fully recover, and as online advertising is on the decline sparked not online by economic woes, but by the rise of alternatives — such as social media — agencies will have to shift their skill sets to effectively get in on the game. And they will — many already are, of course. They have to if they want to follow the marketing dollars. And like the SEOs, the PRs, and other players in digital marketing, agencies, too must learn new skills, new business models, and innovate new ways to integrate campaigns into another large and growing subset of channels.

In that sense, there’s no difference on the professional level of social media from the user level. Social media belongs to everyone. And no one.

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