The Dark Side of Outsourcing Social Media

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Sometime last year, a friend, established author but newbie blogger, handed me a book and said, “hey, read this and, if you dig it, write about it.” The book was on topic, I liked it and, shortly after it’s release, I posted about it.

The next day, I got an e-mail. It was from the “blog tour consultant” my friend’s publisher paid many thousands of dollars to run her blog tour (I always hated that phrase).

“Dear Blogger” it began. And, that was the most compelling line. There was no rapport building, no interest in me or what I write about, no evidence that she’d ever read a word I’d written. In fact, I’d never heard of her before and the “to” field in the e-mail showed a group name.

Then, this wonderfully cozy e-mail asked me to post a review of the book…that I’d just reviewed on my blog the day before!

So, I called my friend, peeved at the breach of respect and blogosphere etiquette on the part of the “trained professional” that was pushing the book and concerned about the reputation of my friend. I told her this person was breaking pretty much every rule in the “how to pitch bloggers” manual and I’ve seen other bloggers publicly trash people for less. She freaked out and called the publisher asking to see who’d been solicited, got a list and passed it on to me.

The good news was that there was probably not much damage done.

The bad news was that the damage was easily containable because besides me (who was apparently added to the list last minute because I was “friends & family”) the 200 or so blogs on the consultant’s broadcast list collectively had about 1,000 visits a month…together

And, this is what the publisher was paying thousands of dollars for?

As I’ve tweeted recently, the smartest people I know in social media readily admit they’re making it up as they go 90% of the time. And, they’re the ones who are leading the pack, pushing paradigms, testing ideas and reporting results.

But, while these social media visionaries don’t yet know exactly what does and doesn’t “work,” they have been in the game long enough to (a) know the ethic, hidden rules and culture and (b) have developed credibility, strong relationships and (c) become known as people who are genuinely invested in their communities and who give way more than they get.

They also know that, even though brands are flooding onto twitter and the blogosphere, conversations still happen on a person to person basis. So, I know, for example, that when I tweet with @JetBlue, I’m really talking to Morgan Johnston, whose day job happens to be Community Manager for JetBlue (FYI – Here’s the now epic post that led to that discovery). And, even if I didn’t know that, I do know it’s a person, talking like a person, helping people out.

Why does all this matter?

Because, social media is vastly more effective as a business tool when you focus on the humanity behind the brand and allow others to identify with that humanity then let the good will inure to the broader brand.

Which creates a problem when companies try to outsource social media “marketing” to people and companies who not only don’t get social media…but are largely outside the brand.

Sure, my friend’s publisher was smart enough to know they needed help sharing her book across social media, but not well versed enough to get the rules of the game or the lack of qualifications of the person suited to not only accomplish the marketing objective…but do no harm as well.

And, even if they had known the rules, the question remains…

Is it even possible to hire a blog/social media tour consultant or agency to do the job that some 400 crazed tweeting employees at Zappos, including CEO, Tony Hsieh himself, do so well in-house?

My gut says…probably not. Because social media just doesn’t work that way.

It’s about developing relationships around shared interests and values over time.

Think about it. If a blog tour or social media book marketing consultant represents books across all genres, that’d mean they’d have to spend time establishing relationships with tens of thousands of bloggers, twitter users and Facebook friends across hundreds of genres in order to earn the respect, eyeballs and eardrums needed to comfortably reach out to the right people at the right time to help promote a client’s book.

And, the way you do that is by joining in the conversations being had by those thousands of bloggers and twitter followers in a meaningful way and add value to the hundreds of topics that are most relevant to them.

That’s an impossible task. Can’t be done by one person.

In fact, the only way I can think of pulling this off, as a consultant or agency, is to either:

  • Only represent books limited to a small number of genres you have a sincere interest in and spend your time developing real relationships in social media around those topic, so that you build credibility, respect and relationships with a highly targeted group of people. Then, if you reach out to them with a book you think they’d like, you can do it the right way…and they’ll be far more open to it. Or…
  • Assemble a team of people devoted to different genres and niches and have each person on the team handle only books and clients that revolve around that genre.

Outsourced social media book marketing is just one example, but it leaves me with this nagging question…

While it may be possible to hire really smart, insanely innovative people like Chris Brogan, Laura Fitton, Joel Comm, Jim Kukral, Mari Smith, Liz Strauss, Shama Hyder or any number of agencies to help develop your social media strategy, can you also outsource the execution side of the equation without:

  1. Getting royally burned or
  2. Significantly gutting what makes social media so powerful in the first place?

Put another way…

Is it possible to effectively outsource, leverage and scale “Other Peoples’ Social Media Juice?”

Or, is the medium so fundamentally different from traditional channels that the conversation, relationship and value-building effort needs to originate and be sustained from within the company or person?

Because, if the latter is true, this presents two huge challenges. One, for companies looking to largely hand over their social media efforts to agencies the way they’ve done with their traditional marketing and advertising. And, two, for agencies and consultants who would kill to be able to say “sure, just pay us and we’ll run with it,” but, in truth, can’t deliver the same comprehensive solution they’ve served up to date.

I honestly don’t know the answer right now.

But, my my instincts are leaning me heavily toward the need to keep it real and personal when it comes to execution.

As always, just thinking out loud?

What do you think?

Let’s discuss…

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15 responses

15 responses to “The Dark Side of Outsourcing Social Media”

  1. I tend to think that if your business is already offering incredible value and has engaged with people for years in a way that’s very human and approachable, then social media becomes a natural extension of a sound and successful business practice.

    Therein lies the rub: what if you’re a business, or you’re a person dealing with a business, that has never been accustomed to having a conversation with customers? What if your marketing has always been about numbers and shiny things and not about how you translate your values into an experience that leaves customers/clients talking positively for years?

    So you get a company like the above, and they decide it’s time to foray into social media , where, for perhaps the first time, it becomes painfully (and perhaps expensively) clear that their model is lacking the kind of customer outreach and story that social media demands.

    I think if you’re running a business that knows its story and values and customers well, getting a social media maven to help you learn the ropes is a sound idea. That person wouldn’t manage the actual communications/engagements long term, but rather serve as an adviser and mentor throughout.

    For the other companies, I’m stuck. They need social media, but what if a lack of understanding leads to the issue you had with your friend’s ‘consultant’? Maybe such companies, individuals, whatever could step into social media after they’ve rethought their business strategy in general (and a good social media superstar can help with this, too), and then how that translates into a conversation with people. Otherwise you get that proverbial cart before the horse, and in a very public and potentially embarrassing way. 🙂

  2. I think that if you tell people, “This is Chris, he is our social media person”, you and your company will do much better than if you let people believe that the person in the profile is the person interacting with your social media network.

    However, the huge draw of social media is the potential interaction between content producers and consumers. There is nothing cooler for consumers then to get a tweet from @pamslim or @guykawasaki about a comment you made about their work.

    When you put a doppelganger in place of yourself, you could lose a great connection between your community and your “brand.” If you can’t interact yourself, then my opinion is not to worry about it. There are other outlets you can use to connect with your fans. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone is on Twitter, Facebook, or other SM outlets.

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    I completely agree. Nothing worth achieving comes easy and building a following is no different. I’ve only been blogging for about 5 months, but am experiencing first hand the need to build relationships with readers and fellow users of the social media outlets that are commonly used as marketing tools.

    Building relationships is a slow and gradual process that requires much more time and effort than targeting masses of traffic in an impersonal way, but I think that if you put in the effort and build a network of people who know what you’re about, you’ll be likely to get a much stronger response from it.

  4. Phyllis says:

    Jonathan,
    This topic is coming up more and more. Inside an organization who “does” the social media stuff? What get’s missed or ignored is all to evident in your example. The entire reason it works is because of the SOCIAL aspect. Real people talking to other real people.
    Business entities who do it well, incorporate that component in thier overall strategy. It’s easy to tell the ones who don’t get it.

  5. Ouch. It makes you wonder what the “training” was all about for the “professional.” Fact is, social media strategy is no different than sound regular strategy in the new normal. Relationships, relationships, relationships. They get results via referrals and third party endorsements. They keep it personal in a society and business climate that craves and demands authenticity. You can only bottle up a cheap imitation if you’re trying to manufacture real. Great points, Jonathan.

  6. Deniz says:

    Thanks for this post. It raises a lot of questions, i have been asking myself as well.
    A month ago I (@Roninja) started twittering for a small company where they just get started to see the benefit of Social Networks and are willing to enter the field.
    We use different twitter profiles: there is the “official twitter” of the Company @Outsource2Guate, some people are twittering on their own accounts (like @carrcin, @deztyped among others, the CEO is twittering as well at @officient,
    It works fine, because of 2 reasons (i found so far, there may be more of course)
    1. always being open on who you are.
    2. Communicate internally. If I talk to someone on Twitter about some special topic, the specialist on the topics always helps me out immediately.

    Probably this is possible because the company is still small. I dont know how it would work to twitter for some huge conglomerate all by yourself though.

  7. […] The dark side of outsourcing social media (Via: @danschawbel) […]

  8. Joe Lima says:

    Spot on as always. Frankly, if a company is thinking about outsourcing its social media activities, it should not even bother getting into social media. I think having an outside perspective is fine but the conversations MUST be between the company/group/organization and the people it is trying to reach.

    Have a great weekend.

  9. Dixie Vogel says:

    While you can hire a consultant to give you the ins and outs of social media etiquette, I don’t see how the execution of an effective social media campaign can be handled by an outside agency. Thinking about it…what you’re essentially doing is hand over a company identity to your consultant and saying, “Speak to our customers us” in real time with no review. Add to that the notion that if you don’t know the social media scene firsthand, you have no idea how badly your “specialist” might be mucking up your rep, just as in your example (and not everyone will be inept enough to do so little damage).

    If your representative is not a part of the company or the culture, the “real” factor is gone, and there is no way to know what message is being communicated. If that doesn’t scare the pants off any sensible business owner, I don’t know what will.

  10. I mostly agree with the assessment, but as someone who spent half of his career in marketing and the other half in IT Services (and Outsourcing), I think that certain things can be outsourced. Social Media is a very broad discipline – it contains elements of strategy, communications, community involvement, and other content related and behavioral elements. Yet, other components are tactical, such as blog creations, integrations, tracking, data collection, data mining, and other ‘tactical’ components. These can certainly be outsourced, if properly managed. So, if you look at Social Media Marketing as a communications vehicle – I agree. Once you add the tactical and execution components, much of those elements can be outsourced.

  11. Robert Fay says:

    But Jonathan, what do you do if you are so bogged down that you don’t have time to initiate connections until after you have gotten your site up and going? I am a social person that would have liked to do it all correctly, but haven’t had the time even to look into and respond to all those blogger I wanted to.

  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    So, it seems most are in agreement that while strategizing, outside advice can be super valuable, the execution side of the equation is hugely more challenging to hand off.

    I am curious, though, if anyone else is leaning the other way or has had an oposite experience they’d be willing to share?

    @ Robert – It’s a great question and the answer is simply that the process takes time. Maybe weeks, months or even years. Allow for it…and be okay with it.

  13. My blog (and I am a novice blogger) was completely setup by an outside company with all integrations, design, buttons, etc. I would never let that company blog for me, but everything else, including analytics in the future, is handled by them. A HUGE TIME SAVER.

  14. In trying to train my authors on the use and etiquette of social media, I compare it to a huge party where you might know half a dozen people well, be acquainted with a dozen more and have no idea who anybody else is. The goal, then, is to find the people who share your interests or whom you find interesting and get to know them.

    I don’t think that’s something you can farm out. As Ms. Vogel noted, you can take an etiquette class and learn how to dance, but if your goal is to become known to potential clients/customers you can’t send do it by grabbing someone off the street and sending them to the party in your place.

    Sadly, even individuals don’t “get it.” As often as I tell them to engage in conversation, most still do little more than post the occasional link to an interesting blog or website and/or focus to the exclusion of all else on touting their book(s). That being the case, it’s no surprise that mega-corporations think they can, indeed, hire some agency to take care of this latest trend in customer relations.

  15. Coming from a marketing perspective, I agree that social media is best as an in-house endeavor. But then again so is marketing and communications, and companies continue to have problems either understanding the value of in-house expertise or just don’t have the resources to absorb the overhead. Social media, more than other talents, lends itself to off-site services since it can be done from any computer.

    In this recession, the knee jerk reaction has been to let go the marketing staff, and guess who was leading the charge on the social media front? You guessed it. Marketing. The good news is that those companies who laid off marketing early on are realizing the errors of their ways and rehiring. Other companies are just starting down the lay off road and are the same ones who don’t yet see value at all in social media.

    The other good news is that many other companies are actually actively looking for online and social media talent. I suspect they will be the ones picking up all the social media talent and will have the last laugh post-recession when they are still around to tell the tale.
    .-= Rhona Bronson´s last blog ..Storytelling in a Used Car Culture =-.