Over the past 5-6 years, social media has really come into its own as a business discipline. Most companies now understand that they need to, at a minimum, have some sort of presence on the social networks and other social media. But not everyone can afford to hire full time support, so we find ourselves with a budding cottage industry of specialized social media agencies.
These agencies come in all sizes, and attack their area of specialty in their own unique way. When evaluating a partner, it is very easy to be overwhelmed. Maybe one offers Social SEO or simple content curation and sharing. Another offers online promotions and campaigns only. Yet another specializes in Facebook advertising.
A lot of companies give up and look to hire a full service agency for all of their marketing strategy. While that’s a great option if you have deep pockets, it’s far too expensive for small and medium sized businesses to take on.
Regardless, many of the larger agencies offer social media as an upsell, rather than a core competency. You want to understand if it is a key offering, or a footnote to tack on additional revenue. In the end, the more savvy marketers tend to lean toward specialty outfits that live and breath social media, or at the least, internet marketing.
Before you engage with any potential vendors, use the following questions as guideposts for vetting out the winners from the losers.
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Social Media Agencies: Qualifying Questions
Evaluating a social media agency is very similar to evaluating any other agency. The big difference is that, with so many platforms and techniques flooding the marketing today, it is highly fragmented. Your goal is not to find a partner to brag about. It should be to find the best vendor for your particular business, industry, and style.
What platforms do you have the deepest experience with?
As you surely already realize, not all social media platforms / social networks are a fit for all companies. Most social media agencies will have hands-on experience with at least Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. This is for good reason – those platforms have been proven to have extensive reach and are well understood by the general marketing public.
If you really want to put a footprint on the market, you will need more than a Facebook page to do so. What other platforms do they have a strong grasp of? Every business model has nuances to take into account – for example, Instagram and Pinterest are must-haves for most online stores. You can already figure out if you need one of the bigger platforms, but your agency should be able to help you select additional places for exposure. It’s a key value-add they can provide.
Do you focus mostly on B2B, B2C, or both?
B2B and B2C buyers are nearly opposite in behavior. B2B is a longer decision process and requires much more alignment between awareness activities and the outside sales efforts. B2C, on the other hand, can be closed much faster, even during the very first visit!
The two segments also care about different things. After all, if I’m making a decision on whether to buy a shirt online, I’m the only stakeholder. That situation rarely holds true for B2B purchase decisions.
Whatever your business model is, be sure your potential social media agencies have hands-on experience working with it. It is okay if they have worked with both, but walk away if they’ve never even touched a social media campaign similar to what you’ll need.
This advice may sound short-sighted, but having been on the client and the agency side of the equation, it’s better for both parties involved. As a client, you will save yourself frustration or excess training and hand-holding time. For the vendor, you can focus your attention on other prospects where you are better positioned to show concrete results.
What are the top 3-5 industry segments you have serviced in the past 24 months?
Once you have figured out if the social media agencies on your candidate list are a fit for your consumer or business focus, take time to dig another level deeper. This is where you can be flexible within reason.
Ideally, they will have managed programs in your precise segment of the market, or at least something very similar to it. This is a great way to break a tie between otherwise equal options. You may have to expand out the definition of your industry segment a bit here, to avoid creating a barrier that nearly no one in the business can overcome.
What does that mean? Instead of saying you need someone who has worked with “virtualization performance management for enterprise networks”, you might want to aim for a broader segment such as “networking and security professionals at large companies”. Think about who you target and where you might find them, and evaluate the vendor candidates based on potential to tap into the audience via that platform or location.
How do you measure the impact of social media?
Measurement is a huge topic for all of marketing these days, and social media shouldn’t get a free ride in that discussion. While there is massive debate about the right way to measure success on social programs, you should never allow the discourse to overtake the fact that you need to benchmark progress for any marketing effort.
I’m not advising you to demand a full Return On Investment model. One of the big points of contention is that social media is not well suited to ROI analysis, since it impacts purchases indirectly. I concur with that viewpoint fully for B2B, and mostly for B2C. The main exceptions are ecommerce companies that sell low priced items to consumers. These businesses can drive direct revenue via social media, due to the minimal friction involved in purchase decisions.
For most other business models, find out how your proposed vendor will track and report on progress. It is easy to game any system to get likes or followers (i.e. buy them), so those are faulty metrics to use as benchmarks of success. Be sure there are real business metrics involved, even if it is just based on volume of names added to your marketing database. That’s a great starting point, because you can work those contacts via marketing automation and measure revenue all the way back to original source.
Sometimes you may find that they have a novel way of measuring. Ask direct questions about what the data points mean, how they collect the information, and how you can apply it to the business. If you are comfortable with their approach, keep them on the list.
How does social media impact SEO?
Social Media and SEO are interdependent now, and that overlap is here to stay. In fact, Google has gone on record multiple times suggesting that social signals will become increasingly important to organic ranking.
Google+ is a key piece of their strategy for measuring social and authenticating identities (which is needed to sidestep SPAM in the SERPS), so any provider worth their salt will understand why you should be on G+. And it’s not just about social networking.
With today’s internet marketing environment, it is simply irresponsible to ignore the impact of social and SEO on each other. Your social media providers need to understand target keywords and how links impact SEO, since social media should take advantage of both. Your SEO providers should be very comfortable with shares, likes, and followers, in addition to content generation and content curation.
Heck, long-time SEO thought leader SEOmoz recently changed their name to Moz for this very reason. Call it inbound marketing, internet marketing, search marketing, or whatever catch phrase you like. Either way, they all impact each other now, and that overlap will continue to grow in the future.
Don’t let potential social media agencies (or potential SEO vendors) talk their way out of this one. Hold out for someone who understands both areas.
Where does social media fit into marketing for your own business?
Would you trust your home repairs to a roofer who has shingles falling off of his own house? Of course not! If you aim to hire an agency to manage your social media marketing, start by evaluating how they use it firsthand.
Next, have them defend why they manage it that way. What real business benefit are they getting from it? Who do they trust to manage the interactions? If it’s a college intern with no business experience, who do you expect they’ll assign to your account?
What types of content are they curating and sharing? What interactions can you observe? Are they generating their own content to share?
You want a provider who has mastered this craft. Insist that they are employing effective and sustainable techniques on behalf of their own brand. Only then can you trust your own business goals in their hands.
These are the primary questions I would ask (or expect to be asked) during an evaluation of potential social media agencies. Are there any other zingers you’ve used in the past? Or if you are a provider, have you gotten any other insightful inquiries that you wish more clients would ask? This list could easily expand out into the dozens of questions, so I’d love to hear what else you would add to the list.