Beware the Social Media Siren

Constructing Social is “the first site dedicated to listing agencies and consultants focused on social media.” Created by Colin Browning of Mzinga, it currently has 50 listings. Not to be outdone, Groundswell co-author Charlene Li recently created the Altimeter Wiki that houses a list of more than 100 of the “top social media agencies and consultants.”
 
These directories highlight the importance that has been placed upon social media within the communications industry. And it’s no wonder. In a recent Sapient study of more than 200 CMOs, “90 percent said that it is becoming increasingly important that their agency uses ‘pull interactions’ such as social media and online communities rather than traditional ‘push’ campaigns. Sixty-three percent said that an agency’s Web 2.0 and social media capabilities are ‘important/very important’ when it comes to agency selection.”
 
Yet while a large number of agencies and clients are looking to social media as the future of the communications business, a growing number of highly respected marketers don’t actually see a role for their agencies in social media.
 
Writing on my blog, Barry Judge, CMO of Best Buy, said: “I do feel very strongly that people who work for companies have to participate as themselves in social media. Social means people interacting with people. You can’t outsource that. I am really clear on how we should be participating. I am not sure how agencies participate for clients.”
 
Words like this ought to set off massive alarm bells in the heads of everyone working in the agency business today. To an industry whose primary reason for being is crafting and disseminating messages, the idea that social media — which is rapidly becoming the primary way companies communicate with their customers — is better executed by clients themselves is a fundamental problem.
 
Making matters worse, evidence is mounting that clients like Judge who take social media into their own hands are seeing greater success than those who rely upon their agencies to execute their social media programs. Zappos with its 448 employees on Twitter is the current social media darling. I recently saw a presentation from Brian Kalma, the former director of marketing and now head of UX at Zappos. He estimated that Zappos employees generate 20,000 interactions per day with customers or more than 7 million per year. Compare this with the substantially smaller numbers for most branded applications on Facebook (as has been reported widely by Adweek). It’s no surprise that Gartner analyst Adam Sarner recently predicted that half of all Fortune 1000 social media campaigns would be classified as failures.

 
While social media may be a component of an overall communications program for some companies, others are using social media almost exclusively for their communications needs. Kalma had been a media planner with FCB and JWT before joining Zappos. He now believes: “People planning is the new media planning. The right people in your company will want to engage customers. If you plan your people correctly, everyone will want to engage. And that is good. Your goal should be to have as many people as possible be public voices of the company.”
 
I think it’s almost certain that most, if not all clients, will eventually see the advantages of a do-it-yourself approach to social media. If the effectiveness gains from creating real, person-to-person interactions between customers and employees are not compelling enough, the efficiency gains of being able to invest in long-term assets — people versus disposable ones, campaigns — will seal the deal.

Participation in social media requires a shift in thinking. Clients need to reorient themselves around creating an ongoing relationship with customers rather than hitting them with periodic campaigns. They also must work through the uncertainties of allowing “untrained” marketers within their companies participate in shaping their brands.
 
While these are significant barriers, clients will not see the most resistance internally. Sadly, their agency partners — the companies they trust to advise them on the best, most effective and most efficient ways to reach their customers — will prove to be the biggest roadblocks. Agencies, which must be concerned with their business success as well as the business success of their clients, may find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Advising clients to engage in social media for themselves is far less lucrative than creating communications campaigns for them. As a result, agencies will likely claim (as they are already) media neutrality and treat social media as simply another channel. They will (as they have already) add social media expertise to their staff and social media prefixes to their titles. They will develop social media practices because that’s easier than dealing with the possibility that their basic product — communications — is rapidly losing relevance.
 
Social media places the communications industry in a dramatically precarious position. Either it must face up to its declining relevance and undergo a radical transformation, or it must deal with the fact that its financial success is not aligned with giving its clients the best advice. Fortunately for clients, social media is overwhelmingly good news. Not only can social media improve their communications, but it can also make them less expensive.

Adrian Ho is a partner at Zeus Jones.