It is fair to say we’re all past the “Is social media really that important?” phase of marketing. However, when it comes to determining how best to successfully implement a social strategy, numerous debates exist. One of the most often posed questions we hear from prospective clients is, “Should I hire an agency or hire in-house resources?” The answer, of course, is always complicated, but here are some of the factors to consider when faced with that choice.
For B2C companies, social media is increasingly performing the function as an extension of customer service. Combine that with an increasing consumer expectation of immediacy for both response and resolution, and the decision to maintain social media in-house or to rely on an outside partner should be predicated on whether uniform solutions are available to resolve customers’ complaints. If the preponderance of customer complaints can be resolved using pre-approved, “canned” responses, then it’s perfectly acceptable to have that function handled by either an outside vendor or internal resources. If resolutions frequently require coordination and approvals among various internal departments, then using internal employees with immediate access or decision making authority makes more sense.
Winner: In-house, by a nose.
The joke goes, on the Internet, nobody can tell you’re a dog. Similarly, on the Internet, unless your brand’s social media persona is a specific person, authenticity is fungible. Agencies have a long history of assuming, or creating, the “authentic” voice of their clients. In most cases, the hired, in-house social media manager or community manager faces the same learning curve as an agency partner might have. And as long as there are brand voice guidelines established, there is not a clear authenticity advantage for either an in-house resource or an agency partner.
Strict Compliance Requirements
In regulated industries like financial services or pharmaceuticals, there are strict communications requirements and limitations that, if violated, can create a very real legal threat. Understanding where those bright lines lie can mean the difference between self-promotion and self-incrimination. The key to evaluating the best resource for this situation relies on evaluating experience and expertise. In-house solutions require an employee with understanding of the complexities of the regulation as well as the communications skills required. Because of this, frequently, the duty is assumed by employees with more traditional corporate communications functions, e.g: investor relations or PR. The right agency partner for this type of scenario would likely be focused on, or have broad and deep experience within that specific or adjacent industries.
Winner: Tie (goes to the resource with the most experience)
Creativity has never been the sole domain of agencies. However, for many in-house creative teams, unless there is an inherent culture in support of taking risks, management’s assessment of “on brand” has a tendency to become “like before.” This can dampen the creative drive of even the most artistic of souls. Ultimately it all boils down to incentives. In many large corporations, the balanced scorecards for in-house creatives tend to often heavily favor production and process versus innovation. Whereas those same managers will demand risk taking and innovation from an outside agency. It’s not fair to the in-house teams, but it happens a lot. Further, since agencies frequently have lower overhead structures than in-house teams, they can throw more creative per dollar at solving a problem than many in-house teams.
Winner: Agencies, but not because of talent
Social media can be considered one of the most expensive “free” media channels ever created. And if you’re a challenger brand, with limited resources, it often serves as a third-tier priority within your already stressed marketing plans. If your organization is not impacted by compliance concerns, doesn’t require “always on” 24-hour monitoring, or closely identified with a recognizable personality as part of your brand, there’s likely no reason you can’t outsource your social media strategy and execution. Look for an experienced partner who understands your industry and can provide you a regular editorial calendar, content creation, monitoring and most importantly, a detailed dashboard of performance. In exchange, you’ll get a more comprehensive, accountable and effective social media program without having to tax your existing team.
It all boils down to available resources and appetite for risk.
Some of the most creative folks we have encountered in our business have been members of in-house creative teams. So, whether a company should choose to handle their social media strategy and implementation in-house is rarely a question of where there is more raw talent. It has more to do with the company goals and requirements surrounding their social media initiatives as well as the business’ internal management structure and appetite for risk.