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6 Critical Services Agencies Must Provide to Stay Relevant in Social Media

Is there a future for agencies in a social media world?

Yesterday, I gave a presentation in Tempe, AZ to Agencyside, a conference of advertising and PR agency owners. I emphasized that to remain relevant, agencies must differentiate themselves by providing advanced social media services, not just the basics.

An Enormous Opportunity

The huge (and expanding) reach of social media, and its relatively low cost (at least from a production fees perspective) makes it an incredibly attractive proposition for marketers.

Forrester Research shows that from 2009-2014, U.S. corporate expenditures on social media will increase by an AVERAGE of 34% a year, and that by 2012, as much will be spent on social media as on email marketing.

Agencies, are there any other services you provide likely to grow 34% each year? Maybe Selena Gomez autographs, or Danica Patrick NASCAR collectibles. Otherwise, good luck.

Me Too. Me Too

Agencies realize how hot social media is, and they are scrambling to add social media expertise (real or imagined) to their services mix. In fact, a search for “social media agencies” on Google yields more than 41 MILLION matching Web pages. Sifting through that pile to separate the experts from the pretenders is a near impossibility.

Social media builders and evangelists almost literally grow on trees, and the basic social media services being offered by many agencies do not provide much that clients couldn’t do themselves, if they chose to do so.

Strategic social media integrators are scarce, and agencies that want to succeed long-term in the provision of social media services need to get into that camp FAST.

Think Different

Here’s 6 ways to differentiate agency social media services:

1. Social is an Ingredient, not an Entree
Help clients find ways to add social components to existing marketing (print, outdoor, broadcast, direct mail, email, search, live events) – rather than viewing social media as a freestanding silo.

2. Codify Listening & Engagement
I still maintain that when the dust settles, we’ll all realize that social media is much better for customer retention than for customer acquisition. Consumers are using social media (especially Twitter) as a 1-800 line, and agencies should be helping their clients answer the social telephone by setting up listening posts and protocols, and trying marketing to customer service in real-time.

Agencies should also be working with clients on using social media as a market research tool, by surveying fans or creating dedicated, invite-only brand communities that serve as a living focus group.

3. Keep Score
Social media metrics are widely available, but require effort and integration to be gathered and analyzed successfully. Allowing clients to treat number of Facebook fans as the core success metric is a dereliction of duty. Go beyond the obvious and use customer service metrics, social connectivity of customers, and Web traffic patterns as measures that matter.

4. Communicate with Content
After strategic thinking, the key to social media success is content creation. Help clients take their message to consumers directly, impacting purchase intent by providing truly helpful information at the right time in the buying cycle. And make sure to atomize your content, taking one idea and propagating it in as many places and formats as possible, each reaching a different audience.

Content creation isn’t enough, however, because content isn’t king – optimized content is king. Help clients tie search success to social media through wise keyword analysis, multi-media optimization and ongoing link acquisition. Remember, the most important customer of EVERY company is Google.

5. Learn the Science of Social
Like any other online marketing program, social media is widely measurable – and testable. Don’t just let your clients post to their Facebook page willy nilly, or write random blog posts whenever they feel that WordPress urge. Social media is at least as much science as it is art, and the agencies that develop those capabilities will have a meaningful edge.

There’s an optimal time of day and day of week to tweet. There’s a way to get your Facebook update seen in more news feeds. There’s certainly a methodology for attracting blog readership. Between and Postrank, and Tweetmeme and Topsy and Facebook Insights and about 1,000 other tools you can use to precisely measure social media success, there is literally no excuse to not ALWAYS BE TESTING.

6. Make Social Portable
Facebook’s true genius isn’t, it’s Facebook Connect, allowing consumers to import their friends and their friends’ opinions onto hundreds of thousands of other Web sites. When you can go to an appliance Web site (like my new client Conn’s), and see not just reviews of a refrigerator, but reviews from your friends and friends of their friends, the world changes. And it is.

Combined with the new geo-targeted social interaction tools like Foursquare and Gowalla, and the just over the horizon technology of QR codes, social graph portability and the “site-less” Web (as Paul Gillin calls it) is an area that smart agencies need to know now.

Grab a Seat at the Table

In theory, I believe agencies actually have a huge role to play in smart social media adoption and execution. Companies often get so close to their own knitting that they cannot see the knots, and that brand of myopia is especially difficult to overcome in social media. Agencies can provide the counsel, the wisdom, the expertise, and the distance necessary to be an important rudder as companies navigate the choppy waters of a world gone real-time.

But that requires agencies to get beyond “setting up” a Twitter account or other one-and-done services of dubious strategic value.

(If you’re an agency that has all of this figured out, congratulations. I wasn’t talking to you.)

(If you’re an agency that needs to go down this path, give me a shout. I work almost entirely with agencies. I’d be happy to share my slide presentation with you, too).
(photo by Steven Depolo)

Facebook Comments


  1. Anonymous says

    I like your list a lot and the presentation must have got a good response. My big issue with digital in general (and social media in particular) is that all too often tactical tools are held up as strategic solutions.

    The great promise of online is that for the first time here is an opportunity to take your message to prospects, engage them, lead them on a journey though to first sale, up sales, cross sales, regular sales, retention and finally as a source of referral to repeat the process and grow market share. All of that is available without ever having to leave your desk or even armchair in the coffee bar (I also get the feeling that you and I share a liking for more booze oriented bars but that is an aside). If you are interested we formalised this approach as an overarching digital marketing strategy when we set up our agency in the UK. Feel free to borrow it or use it at your presentations but obviously we would love a credit if you do.

    For that reason your first point about ingredient not entre is absolutely resounding with me. Similarly a lot of social media that I see amounts to little more than some kind of hippy love-in where everyone sits down and simply talks crap. Unless it is channelled through cause and effect with an ultimate aim of increasing sales (which is very different from a push sell approach), then it’s a lot of time, effort and money wasted.

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing it

  2. says

    Great post, Jay. What are your thoughts on the PR agencies that still have a Social Media or Digital department or practice that operates separately from the rest of the agency? It makes little sense to me, but I still see it frequently and hear PR agency folks say “social media? Oh, that's part of our digital practice.” I wonder if they have a separate department for using telephones as well.


  3. says

    As you said so eloquently, the keys to the social media city lie in knowing what you're doing and trying different things. In a client's eyes, those 2 things may seem contradictory. If you really know what you're doing, why do you need trial and error? Well, that's part of the knowledge thing. There isn't any silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all. Knowing what is possible and what works in certain situations goes a long way. Having the trust of the client to be flexible and adapt to change – that's crucial.

  4. Anonymous says

    Jay; I’ve been reading you last few posts and others like it across the net. Take a look at this a business model that we are developing:

    This blog post is a thinly veiled application that my firm is building for a variety of clients from Corporate Jets and Banking to Education industries. The game is going to change in a big way very soon. You are right on target when you say things like “Integrating Social Media into the business plan” That’s it. Spot on.

  5. says

    Wonderful post, Jay! Your points bring up one resounding truth in the services that we in the communications industry need to keep in mind: we need to stay ahead of the curve. We need to be at least two stepa ahead of our clients in what we do and know. Otherwise, we're irrelevant.

    Narciso Tovar
    Big Noise Communications

  6. scotttownsend says

    Really enjoyed reading your post today. Although not an agency, I think as someone with a markteting practice, I agree it is very important to stay alert to the changing climate in communications and provide depth to our strategies.

  7. says

    This was a great presentation yesterday, Jay, and this post based on it is a clear example of “atomizing content.”

    A core takeaway for me, which now seems so obvious, was that agencies like ours should differentiate by being different. You said yesterday, “Social media as an umbrella term is unhelpful and impossible.” I'm a social media strategist in a digital-only agency, and that statement for the first time gave me permission to admit to myself that I feel overwhelmed by everything I expect myself to know and be able to do.

    By breaking “social media” into defined pieces, we will not only be standing out and serving our clients better, but we will also be placing more realistic expectations on ourselves. Being an expert in “social media” isn't possible; being a team of experts with “specific, advanced social media capabilities” is the way to go. Thanks for helping me see that clearly.

  8. Warren Fabricius says

    Very insightful post Jay and a good read. I think even here in South Africa, agencies have begun sitting up and taking notice of both the current and future roles that social media plays. The one-size-fits-all approach to implementing SM strategies has long since been abandoned, and specialising in a particular field of SM certainly seems the way to go.

    BTW, have you ever been approached to address SM / online marketing seminars abroad? Would certainly be a coup to introduce you to the SA market.

  9. says


    I like your post and agree with most of it.

    My main area of disagreement is that I don't see an agency helping a business “answer the social telephone.” Sure I see the tie to setting up the listening posts etc. but the core discipline of customer service and its management is a skill set far removed from most PR and marketing experts.

    Wouldn't you agree?

  10. says

    Hi Jack. I have agency clients that do it both ways. For now, it doesn't bother me a ton, because the reality is that not all clients of the agency are using social yet, etc. so to carve it out is sensible. Eventually, no. Social will be part of the fabric of every client and every campaign, at which time social media expertise (at some level) will be everyone's job. Agencies might still have specialists, the way PR firms today sometimes have people that are writing, or pitching, or events specialists. But, having a social media and/or digital “department” is a short-term solution.

  11. says

    John, you raise such an incredibly good point. Agencies have to get past the “I know everything, and won't admit that I don't” mentality. As a digital marketing guy since 1994, my go-to approach was “I don't know what will work for your business, Mr. Client. But what I do know is a methodology to find out.” It's true. And it works.

  12. says

    If there were thousands of blogs, Webinars, books, etc. teaching me how to fix my own car, my mechanic would need to evolve to survive, too.

  13. says

    Exactly. That post could have easily read “internal marketing departments” instead of “agencies”. The core principle is that social media is about doing in real-time, not making once.

  14. says

    Thanks Daniel. I really appreciate you embracing the concept that not pretending to have all the answers is an agency strength, not a deficit. Please keep me posted on your progress. I'd love to write up a case study on you guys when you're ready.

  15. says

    The agency's role should be helping the company find ways those two groups can work together closely. In a real-time world, customer service and marketing are essentially the same thing. The fact that they are (as you rightly point out) two totally separate groups in most companies, is a huge burden and Achilles heel. Agencies need to advocate for cooperation and help make it happen.

  16. Sarah Z. Cordell says

    I really enjoyed your post! These tips are things that should be applied to all shiny new toys as they come along, because there will always be something new.

  17. says


    41M pages. Not super shocked by that number as whenever something is new especially in marketing and it starts to gain traction, people flock to get their hands it. We saw the same thing with media agencies where suddenly there were internal depts that were the media dept. I have structured the agency so that it is an advertising and SM marketing agency for small businesses as advertising is still alive and well and we need to incorp those efforts into the SM. SM being the latest and greatest it is not shocking where some would push only SM – but this is where we separate the legit from the shysters.

  18. Rishi says

    I think the process of mystification of social media is on right now – to try and moentize it in many ways. It will be the process of demystification, which will follow the burst of the bubble which will evolve to more robust and thought through services.

    However, i think all your reccomendations are good and important from a thinking point of view.

  19. Marie Rotter says

    Love it! Bravo! I'm working with a Fortune 250 company right now on their social media strategy and I feel like I'm trying to make these points over and over and over with various senior management teams. You just did so very succinctly and sounded so much better than I do. I may steal this. :)

  20. sabrinahorn says

    I really like your post — it makes so much sense. Our approach as a PR firm has been to make sure social is something every employee is versed in and can advise clients on to varying degrees. We do not believe in having separate functions or departments for something that is inherently so much a part of the fabric of what we do.
    Sabrina Horn

  21. sabrinahorn says

    I really like your post — it makes so much sense. Our approach as a PR firm has been to make sure social is something every employee is versed in and can advise clients on to varying degrees. We do not believe in having separate functions or departments for something that is inherently so much a part of the fabric of what we do.
    Sabrina Horn

  22. curvecomms says

    Great post – We (as an agency) are often surprised to see that other PR agencies aren't involved in Social Media – when online media relations are arguably more important than traditional media relations simply because of their permanence on the web. With customer service & public relations becoming blurred thanks to Social Media, it's a great detriment to ignore the movement.

  23. says

    Just catching up tonight on your posts. Better late than never but thank you for this well taken post. As a relative newbie to the “virtual” world, our business model is being very successful. We are approaching 7 figures in sales already this year and making great strides. Social media optimization is a big part of our business for several reasons. I need to be better at identifying and implementing new and relevant strategies so that we are not just “doing a bunch of stuff they could do for themselves.” I am reading your work voraciously and going thru last years posts as well. I am learning a ton and more importantly applying it. We are a good example of a media outsider coming in with some fresh thought and making a splash. This is good for a while but to stay in the game we have to broaden and I know this. Do you have any more advice on how we can speed up our learning curve so we can increase speed to market. There is a lot of fluff out here. You are definitely a mentor and I am looking for more!

  24. Katie Howison says

    Wonderful post. Great to hear you endorse the need to integrate social media into the overall marketing strategy. It's all about selecting the best combination of the traditional and the new to drive the desired results. Thanks for your insights!

  25. says

    Good stuff Jay. The content aspect and not just any old post and run content is so critical. Agencies on top of their game should already be there, it is the greatest value we bring is third party objective perspective to a client's brand & products.

  26. says

    Good stuff Jay. The content aspect and not just any old post and run content is so critical. Agencies on top of their game should already be there, it is the greatest value we bring is third party objective perspective to a client's brand & products.

  27. says

    Good stuff Jay. The content aspect and not just any old post and run content is so critical. Agencies on top of their game should already be there, it is the greatest value we bring is third party objective perspective to a client's brand & products.

  28. says

    Awesome post! I would add that before presenting strategies to clients, agencies should adopt social media and execute on themselves. Many agencies, realizing the hotness of social media, see a way to affect their bottom line. they present strategies to marketers and end up looking like social media posers.

  29. says

    You know how it is. First time “as Todd Defren says”. Second time “as I’ve heard”. Third time “as I always say”.

    However, I should have credited you in that post. I do set people straight about it on Twitter. Same thing with a line I use of Charlene Li’s. I’ll tweak the post if you like.

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