The rise of social media has been met with thousands claiming expertise in the area. The skepticism this engenders in longtime marketing pros is best captured in a popular animated video called "The Social Media Guru." The clip shows a know-it-all, lightly credentialed "expert" dispensing little more than buzzwords and common sense to a bemused client.
Despite the easy laughs at the expense of self-proclaimed experts, big brands are on the hunt for help in figuring out their approaches to connecting with consumers on Facebook, providing service on Twitter and instituting internal social media guidelines. Because it can touch everything from communications to marketing to customer service to product development, social media has created a muddied playing field that some see as ripe for creating agency opportunities.
"There's demand in the marketplace for creating a new type of agency," said Sean Corcoran, an analyst with Forrester Research. "The question is whether that's viable long term."
Clients like Audi and Chrysler are on the hunt for social media shops, according to agency executives. Powered, a vendor of brand community sites, last week rolled up three different social media agencies, Crayon, Drillteam Marketing and StepChange Group to form a 70-person social shop.
The new Austin, Texas-based entity aims to compete to be lead social media agency for clients, said Joseph Jaffe, founder of Crayon and now "chief interrupter" at Powered. "The market needs this," said Jaffe. "I don't believe digital or PR agencies are capable of leading and owning social media."
Powered joins a new crop of social-media-focused firms that hope to outmaneuver established digital agencies by focusing on new opportunities like Facebook and Twitter rather than the typical Web shop offerings that also include banners and microsites.
Mike Germano, CEO of 14-person social shop Carrot Creative, does work for brands like Crayola. "The digital shop had ownership over good user experience of the Web site," said Germano. "Now the focus is more on social interactions."
The demand for social media services echoes the creation of Web shops at the arrival of the Internet. At that time, companies scrambled to develop Web strategies and agencies scrambled to meet their needs. As the medium evolved, any agency without competitive digital capabilities began to seem antiquated. Debate has centered around whether there is even a need for agencies focused solely on digital.
Now the question for social media firms is whether they'll translate the short-term demand for Facebook pages, Twitter campaigns and audits of social chatter about a brand into a long-term strategic business, said Jeff Dachis, founder of Razorfish and now CEO at Dachis Group, which is focusing on providing social business strategy. Otherwise what they're offering clients will quickly become the domain of established agencies in public relations, advertising and digital.
"If you have a dedicated social media agency they need to be well integrated with the rest of your team because none of this stuff stands alone," said Scott Monty, digital and multimedia communications manager at Ford. Rather than have a single social media shop, Ford works with several for different needs. It leans on the social skills of OgilvyPR, while also working with Social Media Group and Undercurrent. "This is the year that will separate the pretenders from the practitioners," he said.
See also: "Who Owns Social Media?"