Most companies employ a social media agency to fill some sort of gap: the company does not have enough in-house resources or lacks the in-house expertise. Or perhaps it just makes sense from a budget or long-term planning standpoint to employ an agency vs. hiring a full-time resource. Whatever the reason, companies using agencies for social media work often botch both the relationship and the work.
Given the tenuous state of the economy and the fact that companies are seemingly announcing sweeping job cuts every day, now seems like the right time to talk about when to use an agency, for what and how to get the most out of your agency relationship.
Before you hire an agency
Quite simply, use an agency when you need help. You might need help because you don’t have enough in-house hands on deck. Or you because you need a deeper expertise in a certain area of social. But the first thing you must define when exploring using an agency partner is what you need their support with.
Don’t start reaching out to agencies with vague ideas like “We need help with social media.” Be specific.
Do you need help developing a strategy? Creating content? Managing your channels on a day-to-day basis? The “what” should determine the type of agency you look for and also how you screen your candidates. There are even agencies that specialize in certain industries or sub-areas of social. You set yourself up for failure if you cannot clearly and specifically say what kind of help you need. Agencies are very good at taking direction. They are not as good at making up their own direction and hoping it hits the mark.
Another common mistake companies make is putting someone in charge of shopping for an agency who doesn’t understand social media. Let’s put it this way: If I was hiring a new chef at my restaurant, would I ask another chef to interview the candidates, or the hostess who never sets foot in the kitchen? To hire a social media agency, you need someone who knows something about social media to help you select one.
It’s pretty easy for agencies to talk a good game if they are talking to someone who doesn’t have the experience to discern the posers from the real ones. Even if you have to hire an outside expert to help you vet your candidates, that’s still better than making an uninformed choice and hoping it works out. (By the way, people also make this same mistake when hiring internal roles.)
When to use an agency
Given the current state of things, these are the ways I most commonly see agency partners being used in an effective and impactful way:
If your organization does not have a fully baked social media strategy, this is one area where agencies can really help. Find an experienced agency that has designed corporate-level social strategies for clients like yours. Ask for examples and references. Look for a partner that has experience that is applicable to your company, your industry and what you do.
Unless you’ve been blessed with an in-house creative team, one of the most valuable things an agency can do is free up your social media folks to do social and not make six versions of every post. This can also be a great area for agencies if you have video, animation, graphics or other more sophisticated content needs.
Editorial calendar management
I am a big fan of what I call the “air traffic controller” role on a social media team. That’s the person who watches the entire flow of content going out on your channels and serves as the final check and gatekeeper. This is a role an agency can fill if needed.
One area that often falls between the cracks is governance—basically control and security of your social media accounts. While this is important for any company, large enterprises are especially at risk. A hacked account can mean a ton of brand damage as well as a crisis to manage that is of your own making—the worst kind of crisis there is. Unfortunately, many social media teams are just stretched too thin to make this a priority, and it’s an area where an agency might be able to help.
It’s no secret that paid social media is a whole other can of worms, and is increasingly a specialized area of expertise. If you don’t have a paid expert on your team, it might be something to outsource—to the right agency.
I have seen agencies incorrectly set up ads, mistarget them and waste budget. I’ve also seen agencies set up ad campaigns that basically compete for the same audience—driving up the auction and spending more of their client’s money because they are bidding against themselves. Check in on your ad campaigns, monitor their performance, double check the targeting and ask your agency for regular reporting about their efforts and results. If your agency is hesitant to offer you metrics, something isn’t right. Accountability is important, especially here.
It is possible to bring on an agency to manage your channels daily, but this is one I’d offer with a grain of salt. I don’t like trusting my channels and brand voice to just anyone assigned from the agency team. I also believe that outsourcing community management generally makes you slower and less responsive since it adds a layer of communication for every question that needs to be answered.
The other thing to consider is cost: Depending on what your agency charges, it may be cheaper to hire a part-time resource or a junior level staff member to do your community management. Do the math.
Invest in the right partners (and hold up your side of the deal)
If you rely on your agency for things outside of this list, maybe it’s time for a re-think. If your agency manages everything from soup to nuts with no oversight, no accountability and no input from you, they’re running the show instead of the other way around.
Remember, you are the paying client. You direct the work, and get to say what is acceptable. But that requires you to be involved and informed. I have seen way too many social media agencies run all over their clients because the clients didn’t know enough about the topic and the agency had too much free reign.
All of that said, I don’t want agencies to get a bad rap. I mean, I am now the CEO of my own agency so I better like them! It is totally possible to find a great agency partner and build a wonderful working relationship with them that brings value for your team and brand. But if your relationship with your agency is not like that, then you have some work to do.
With budgets tightening and expenses being scrutinized in board rooms globally, now is the time to evaluate your agency relationships. If and when you’re asked to defend the spend, you want to ensure the collaboration (and output) is worth fighting for.
Ready to find the best partner for your brand? Follow our template for creating a strong social media RFP.