the end of social media as agencies know it

The social media retainer, a dependable gravy train of revenue for PR and social marketing agencies, is on its last legs – and the agencies have no one to fault but themselves.

The problem is the way these retainers have been sold. Typically, a client will go unchallenged when they ask their prospective agency questions about how, rather than what, their social media retainer will deliver:

  • What are the most popular channels in market x
  • What audiences will be targeted
  • How many pieces of content will you generate, per channel and market
  • How much ad spend will be required to drive fan base growth
  • How long will it take to hit x number of fans and followers

This outputs led approach to thinking about social media generates a slew of metrics:

  • Reach
  • Month on month fan base increases
  • Engagement rates

These metrics, however, don’t necessarily indicate meaningful outcomes. They merely demonstrate that something – anything – is being achieved through the delivery of outputs.

I once worked with a B2B brand that was quite proud to have gained 100,000 fans on Facebook. When I reviewed the content that had helped them to achieve this milestone, I quickly realised that the main driver of fanning was a sports event ticket give away. Yes, the campaign had reach, it had increased the number of fans and it had led to higher levels of engagement – but how many of those fans had any interest in the brand’s offering or, through their activation, had contributed progress towards meeting a specific strategic objectives of the business? Possibly none.

The question clients need to ask (and agencies genuinely working in their best interests should always challenge them to do so) is “how will digital and social media deliver meaningful and measurable progress towards clearly identified strategic objectives?”.

Strategic objectives aren’t measured through output. They also aren’t measured through the contributions an activity may or may not make towards meeting them. Instead, strategic objectives speak directly to what must be achieved to ensure the commercial viability of a business and might include:

  • generating more leads
  • faster conversion from lead to sale
  • increased value of customer over a duration of time
  • reduced customer care costs
  • lower customer churn rates
  • ability to recruit high value employment candidates
  • reduction of negative perception amongst license to operate stakeholders
  • enhanced reputation amongst shareholders

The above are all critically important outcomes – strategic objectives – that can’t be measured in fans, followers and likes, nor through any other metric associated to the outputs that might push the needle forward towards meeting them.

Agencies need to move, quickly, away from outputs based measurements – this approach is increasingly a commodity offering, with plenty of agencies, some of them off-shored, able to offer the same levels of service at reduced fees.

The key, should the PR and social marketing industries wish to retain their social media management clients, is to become far more strategic and, in doing so, become more strategically important to the businesses they serve. One way to do this is to shift the agency recruitment and staffing model so as to build teams that include not just community managers, copywriters and visual designers, but also senior strategists, possibly with a background in management consultancy or a degree in Business Administration. They’ll also need to bring in experts in digital measurement and analysis – not people who can count brand mentions, likes and followers using Radian 6, but people who understand how to track the outcomes of a piece of content using tools such as Adobe Site Catalyst, pull data from SalesForce, or extract information from scheduling and workforce time logging systems.

The only way to target, and deliver, meaningful outcomes with social media is to understand the strategic objectives of the client. These days, understanding social media just isn’t enough.