With social media getting so much attention in the industry, it's not surprising that there's been a massive land grab by agencies of all shapes and sizes. Agencies recognize the tranformative nature of social technologies and with nearly $1 billion in social media budgets already forecasted for 2010, it's no surprise that agencies are trying to get a jump on the expertise. This creates a lot of confusion for interactive marketers. So much so that a few agency folks actually got together recently to write a joint blog post to point out how they differ ("co-opetition"). Yet each type of agency comes at social media with a distinct strong suit. For instance:

  • PR agencies tend to be stronger in working with earned media — specifically working with influentials.
  • Interactive agencies tend to be better at building out owned media (like communities and social net pages), have expertise in technology, and understand things like the relationship between social media and search marketing.
  • Traditional creative agencies and media planning/buying agencies tend to focus on how social media fits into paid media campaigns (i.e., advertising) because, well, that's been the focus of their business for the last century.
  • Other new agencies like WOM specialists and even a new set of social agencies (e.g., Powered, Converseon, Digital Influence Group) are popping up, but they're still mostly nascent and don't dominate the space.


These are generalities and there are definitely exceptions to the rule. Yet the reality is while many of these agencies are helping their clients with strategy and even organizational structure, they're mainly playing a support role. Why? Because most marketers want to have the conversations directly with their customers. They don't want a middle man either talking for them or adding another layer of people to the communication process. As one social marketer recently told us, their agency acts as their arms and legs, ears and eyes, sometimes their brain but NEVER their mouth. Only employees are allowed to talk to their customers. And while some companies, usually ones with limited resources (like some in the B2B space), do allow their agencies to speak on their behalf, we have found it is becoming very uncommon (we'll have data on this soon).

So what should you do to make sure your agencies are helping you effectively manage your social marketing? Start with these steps:

  • Set clear roles. Start by determing whether or not you want an outside party speaking on your behalf. Then identify what you need from an outsourcing perspective and look internally at your current agency skill sets. You may only need a good interactive agency to help you build out assets or you may need help across the board. Once you know what you need, make sure to identify the roles each agency plays and draw a line so the land grab doesn't continue.
  • Find out what social skills your agency really has. Start by looking at their actual experience as well as their own practice in it. A lot of agencies don't even use social tools themselves, which puts them in a poor position to be giving you advice on how to use them.
  • Demand data analysis, not just collection. Agencies are great at collecting information, but they're not always so adept at synthesizing the data and then telling their clients what it means to their business. There's a lot of lip service to "insights" but it's crucial for your agencies to be able to make sense of the information that's pouring in in real time while also helping you determine when to take action.