Social media can be a huge time suck.
But if you’re building a business or a brand, you know you should be using it to interact with your customers.
No wonder then that a recent American Express survey of small business owners found that "social media expert" was the most commonly listed position that people would like to fill to help their businesses, coming out far ahead of such obvious roles as assistant.
There are some upsides to seeking outside help, but not necessarily a full-time in-house position:
If you’re a big corporation, that’s one thing. But most enterprises aren’t. Shane Shaps runs 520 East Brands, a social media marketing company. She says that her team often devotes 4-15 hours per week to small business accounts. That’s enough that it would be a major addition to someone’s existing duties, and would probably get shortchanged. But, on the other hand, it’s not enough hours to hire a dedicated person. Outsourcing lets you get the hours you need.
Travis Huff, CEO of Real-Time Outsource, another social media marketing company, says that "Weekends and holidays are some of the busiest times in terms of social engagement." If you add social media to an internal person’s duties, she might not be responding to customer questions posted on Friday night.
A social media company can have a team assigned to your account, and cover odd times. Also, if you’ve got one internal person taking on social media, and she leaves, there goes your expertise. A social media company loses employees like any other business, but that’s that owner’s problem, not yours. You’ll still have continuity.
A social media company has multiple clients, and knows what works and what hasn’t. While it’s tempting to assign social media duties to your interns, "This is a professional business, and you can’t necessarily trust it to a college kid who’s never had any work experience," Shaps says. "You need somebody who understands this is business communication we’re talking about. There’s a strategy behind some of the silliness we put out there."
Of course, there are downsides to outsourcing too:
Just as plenty of business owners assume their young employees can handle this, plenty of people have figured out that they can call themselves social media marketing firms. Look for red flags: A too-good-to-be-true price, auto-posting the same message on all platforms, and spelling errors that aren’t about shortening words to fit into 140 characters.
People worry that if they outsource social media, they’ll risk big mistakes, like a jokey post while Twitter is lighting up about a school shooting. Unfortunately, that can happen when you do social media internally, too. A bigger worry is coming across as inauthentic.
A good social media company will work hard to develop a voice for your brand that works for each social media platform, but things can go awry. If people tweet as you, for instance, but tweet when you obviously couldn’t have (e.g., responding to someone while you’re giving a speech) you can lose credibility.
Social media experts can bring more readers to content you create, but if you’re the expert, you’ll still have to create much of the content. You still need to think about what messages you want to share with your audience. "We’re just part of their sales team, their marketing team," Shaps says of her clients. "I insist that I meet with my clients regularly. I need to know them. That gives us a vision into their heads and their tastes."
Perhaps most importantly, a big chunk of what a good social media company can do is triage complaining customers and get the serious ones on the phone with you quickly. But, of course, that means you’ll still deal with angry customers.
If you do decide to outsource, keep a few things in mind:
If your business is entirely online, you might need to invest more, but for a regular business that will be doing print, TV, radio, and other types of marketing, Huff says devoting around 15% of marketing dollars to social media is about right. Look for a company that can meet you at that price point.
The danger of social media is that there are many obvious numbers, like getting 100,000 Twitter followers, or 10,000 Facebook fans. But these metrics don’t necessarily mean anything, just as sending mailers to a million addresses doesn’t mean you’ll get a million customers. You’re building relationships, and that takes time.
Huff says sometimes clients want to be on 20 different platforms immediately. He suggests "let’s start with one, or even four really good ones. You can always add an Instagram account next year." Social media isn’t going away, and you’re best off building your presence over time.