As the “high impact – low cost” value proposition for social media continues to increase and gain traction among businesses up and down the food chain, it inevitably brings organizations to that same critical decision point, namely: “Do we create, staff, and manage our social media footprint OR do we hire resources outside of our firm to perform these services on our behalf?” A simple question to be sure, but just like all outsourcing questions, one that is riddled with complexity, innuendo, and a host of moving parts.
The crux of any outsourcing decision focuses on the triumvirate of cost savings, resource allocation, and core competency.
In today’s global marketplace, successful firms are the ones that have zeroed in on their market, their niche, and their unique product service/mix, and have staffed their organization accordingly. As Geoffrey Moore eloquently noted in his book Living On the Fault Line, all of the activities within an organization can be summed up as either “core” or “context.” “Core” is that one thing done with “differentiating excellence” that separates a firm from the pack to provide a competitive advantage, and is often the singular aspect of the client experience most closely aligned with their brand promise. Think about it – there are plenty of national brands that feature pizza, including Papa John’s, Domino’s, and Chuck E. Cheese’s, but each have a slightly different take on their own “core” attributes. Papa John’s core focuses on using better ingredients and Domino’s has always specialized on the delivery side of their business. Chuck E. Cheese’s? Well, from my experience, their core business is campy entertainment featuring a giant, stuffed rodent, and the pizza is more of an afterthought.
Moore goes on to say that once firms have identified their core attributes, the “context” is basically all of the other remaining activities that exist in support of these core offerings. In the case of Papa John’s, because their focus is on superior ingredients, they don’t need to be the lowest priced (they’re not) or feature fancy merchandising. And in the case of Chuck E. Cheese’s, the reason parents visit with their kids isn’t for the Grade-A pizza or the elegant ambiance, but rather for the games, tickets, prizes, and excitement it offers. Whereas for Papa John’s the pizza is the core, for Chuck E. Cheese’s the pizza is simply context, and entertainment is the core.
When it comes to the consideration of whether a firm should outsource their social media, organizations must carefully consider whether social media is core or context for them. Consultants, authors, and speakers recognize that social media has passed the tipping point, and that it is now represents both an expected part of their mainstream brand presence and an implied barometer of their ongoing relevance and contemporary expertise. The problem is, social media is NOT their core competency. Their core competency is creating and sustaining relationships with key individuals within their respective communities (those who recognize and respect them as a thought leader), and who then leverage this visibility to expand their brand through additional speaking engagements, book sales and signings, and new consulting projects.
In the case of solopreneurs like these, outsourcing social media to a third party with expertise in this arena makes perfect sense for the simple reason that it’s not the best use of their time – which is the same reason that most people no longer change their own oil. For single-person firms, every hour spent on establishing and managing social media is one less hour that could be used doing either project work (at a full billable rate), speaking to audiences to reinforce their voice of authority in the industry, or putting effort into writing a new book or white paper. Plus, by using veteran social media experts they are assured that their personal brand and digital presence are integrated and optimized to ensure maximum visibility and market differentiation.
The one critical caveat to this outsourcing discussion as it relates to core competency is that, although there are great business reasons for outsourcing the set-up, maintenance, and management of social media, the dialog and direct conversations with the marketplace should always be made on a direct one-to-one basis. While the expertise and best practices of an outside firm can be leveraged to quickly establish an integrated social media presence, the relationships and interaction facilitated by social media should transpire without any filters because that is how the best communication and most authentic feedback exchanges occur.
Within larger firms, resource allocation is becoming a “hot button” topic because of the game-changing nature of social media and how it has quickly infiltrated nearly every aspect of organizations internally (human resources, corporate communications, R&D, product development, etc.) as well as externally (sales, marketing, PR, branding, community development, recruitment, etc.). Right now, firms are at a pivot point where they are retaining their legacy hierarchical models of how information is exchanged and communicated AND they are expanding their social media ranks to leverage this new communication construct inside and outside their organization. At some point in the near future, there will be a “settling” process once they have fully internalized this transition from old to new media formats, and traditional departments will have realized this transformation in their ranks and in how they are staffed. In the course of this reorganization, progressive firms will take an active role in evolving the job descriptions and responsibilities of existing employees and redirecting them towards redefined roles that leverage social media IN PLACE OF historical activities and models. For example, advertising will determine that social media tools enable them to achieve higher success metrics at a fraction of the cost, and will subsequently redirect their budgets away from traditional advertising towards these new delivery mechanisms.
When it comes to outsourcing social media, established firms have enjoyed success with a low-risk “train the trainer” model in which companies will engage outside experts to educate them on the benefits of social media, create a strategy for social media implementation, and assist in establishing a strong foundation on all of the major networks and platforms, before slowly turning over the day-to-day responsibility to an internal champion, who then either pulls in existing employees or hires fulltime outside talent to maintain and grow these initiatives. This approach offers a true win-win by assuring that social media set up is done correctly the first time, offers an accelerated path to completion, and draws from a wealth of best practices established by working with a seasoned social media industry expert. Plus, it enables firms to leverage their existing talent base and point them towards more ROI-producing activities for reaching and interacting with their target markets.
From single entrepreneurs to large enterprises, it’s still true that time is money. Firms considering outsourcing their social media initiatives to a reputable organization can realize significant cost savings over doing it themselves because – well, it’s THEIR core competency. Companies that specialize in social media strategy and platform set up have the processes and procedures established to enable the work to get done much more efficiently and effectively because they’ve done it before, they’ve systematized the process, and have the team and the talent to guarantee results. It’s one thing to make rookie mistakes when entering social media domains, but when these mistakes happen on the world stage it’s just too dangerous to risk your brand or reputation over an “oops” moment. Having a veteran social media firm as a guide mitigates the risk of making a costly error or dragging out implementation thereby delaying the realization of the cost-benefits afforded by full implementation of social media initiatives.
Based on the observations above, there is no easy, one-word response to the question, “Should social media be outsourced,” for a truly accurate answer will require more strategic discovery, departmental investigation, and a nuanced consideration of the size of the organization, allocated budget, core strengths, and available resources. If there is a pattern, however, the structural model that appears to consistently outperform the others is a hybrid approach combining the best practices of an outside social media expert with the marketing and communication specialists within organizations who are closest to the brand. This combination offers the upside of quick implementation AND a dedicated staff to ensure the project has sufficient momentum to continue growing after initial implementation is complete.
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