Social media is hot, and sometimes it can feel like an arms race across businesses of all sizes to start using social media. There are many caveats and best practices to listening and engaging correctly; although it's still a developing field and best practices are formed every day, there are certain spoken and unspoken rules and approaches. With that said, it's imperative that brands adopt a smart strategy and thoughtful execution of social media. Because social media should be integrated with all groups and silos inside the organization, having an internal social media leader more than makes sense. However, what happens when you don't have the right resources, or don't have enough resources to do something right now?
Last week, I wrote about different end goals of social media: the slow and steady, daily engagement vs. the more time-constrained campaign, aimed at generating buzz. Outsourcing question is a little less complicated with social media campaigns, so let's start with that: it's generally OK for the brand to outsource at least the creative execution of a social media campaign. In some ways, I'd actually encourage that.  A good agency that's worth its salt will understand what works in your sector and can help jump start your creative process. Whatever you do, please be judicious in selecting your external partner (do your research, listen to social media word-of-mouth, ask your network). After selecting one, establish visibility into what they do and make sure you are tracking, measuring and course-correcting constantly.
I think it's important to differentiate between different types of daily engagement. Firstly, there is the more high-level inbound and outbound conversation about larger industry, company and product issues. This is the stuff along the lines of "Why are you guys focusing on this market and this feature? Do you plan to offer a mobile app?". These types of conversations, along with proactive discussions with industry analysts, and potential customers and partners, are essentially your lifeline to the world and demonstrate your strategic thinking and thought leadership. I would never recommend outsourcing it. The second type of daily engagement is the more tactical part, including more routine questions and customer support: "Hey, when is your webinar?" or "I lost my password, how do I reset it?" or "I get an error when I connect my database to your system". Because these types of queries will most likely be numerous in volume, and not every organization is set up to handle it, a mix of outsourcing and automation could be appropriate. The big caveats are around the right execution and hiring an contact center partner who can deliver a quality customer experience and is aligned with your goals. Outsourced contact centers are a great way to bridge capacity issues and ramp up quickly as a shorter term solution. In the longer term, I would encourage you to bring your support at least partially in-house. Even if you are working with an outsourced partner, it is still imperative to at least have internal customer experience leadership in-house, and thought leadership initiatives should always be in-house. Here's is why:
  1. Culture: Only you know yourself as well as you do. If your internal culture is strong, every person should know what the company stands for and what its values are. They will also know what your organizational mandate is as far as customer support and how you interact with other people in the social sphere, as well as in traditional channels. It's more difficult to act as a steward of a company if you don't live inside this internal culture, if you aren't privy to internal workings, things you do well, and areas for improvement. There's just a certain level of magic that's there when you are on the inside. I wrote about hiring the right social media person; and to truly be a brand ambassador, I believe you have to be internal.
  2. Transparency: Just like you can get more visibility into what others are doing, others can get more visibility into your world when you are internal. Of course, an outsourced agency will share what they are working on, and SCRM tools allow everyone to work from the same customer record. However, the level of transparency is just not the same when you take things external, no matter how you slice it.
  3. Collaboration: Because social media is not a silo and internal collaboration is key, an internal person is naturally going to have an easier time working with the right people in the organization. Access to the right department heads is also going to be key, and is simply easier when done internally. All organizations, especially the larger ones, have their own cultural and communication norms, and even office politics, observing which will is also inherently easier by an "insider". We can all debate the importance of flat organizations and seamless collaboration, and whereas we are moving in that direction with SCRM programs and social business and collaboration tools, we are far from the ideal. Also, internal cultural Idiosyncrasies will always exist, no matter what tool or process you enact.
  4. Support from the C-suite: right along with #1, it's key, especially in large organizations to have support of the C-suite, in order to do social media on a meaningful scale. Of course, many companies have started grassroots programs that blossomed into full-scale social media initiatives. Yes, that's a great place you can start -- if you have social media savvy folks, they can certainly start providing support in social channels, blogging, creating content, developing a set of social media guidelines. Once you start, you should be tracking your success, because that's what's going to garner you the executive support you need for a full-scale operation. It's easier to start from the inside, get buy-in and grow vs. getting buy-in to outsource. There's simply more transparency, and the C-suite just may feel better that they know what's going on. Their concerns and fears may be calmed knowing that they can have access to internal social media resources at all times. Once you pilot an internal program, get buy-in, you can then lobby to augment your efforts with support outsourcing (excluding customer experience leadership).
  5. Building a future: having an internal social media and customer experience leadership means that you can also get others energized from the inside, and you can make plans to grow your social media team over time. You should plan to do this; however, as you consider growth plans, make sure that you are not creating a social media silo. Rather, you should make social a part of everything you do and not leave it up to your social team to be the only social voices for your company.
Finding the right social media leader is difficult and time-consuming. Of course, many companies are lucky to have social media leaders sprout up from the inside. But what do you do when you really need to bring in an external hire, for one reason or another? If you are in a situation where no one internally feels comfortable about his / her social media "chops" or no one has the extra resources to dedicate to it, it's OK to ask for external guidance. Recruit a social media strategy company that can help you create a social media strategy, even if it's just for the next 3-6 months. However, you should use them as guides, social media "sherpas" of sorts, while you also get someone internal to collaborate with the agency.
Have you ever had to make an in-house or outsourced decision? Let us know how it went, what worked, what didn't. What are some success factors?
Image by Matt Hamm