More businesses are turning every month to social media management agencies to make sure that their company stays in the game and abreast of the now changed marketing landscape. There's nothing wrong with that approach at all if your circumstances warrant outsourcing such a vital piece of your strategy, but you need to make sure that whoever you hire actually knows what they are doing.
Social media agencies are the new real estate; it's the job that everyone is getting into. With that in mind, it's understandable if not frustrating that there are so many newcomers vying for your business when you aren't sure how to properly vet them. Let me share some insight with you that might seem like common sense after you've read it, but which you may not have considered until now.
Agency or Software?
Before you even begin negotiating with an agency, you should know their capabilities. A good agency will have the right tools, the right experience, and interest in your success. That sounds basic I know, but it needs to be stated.
As far as tools go, all you need to do is check out some high quality social media management software to see what kinds of features are available. After you've assessed the software, you will know two things: whether the software alone will do what you need without the agency, and what kinds of capabilities to bounce off the agency if you do go with one. You may find that a certain dashboard does the trick for your company nicely, but if not you can move on to human negotiations armed with some knowledge.
The First Five
The first five questions you should ask any prospective agency, or any agency that you are currently using for that matter, come from a white paper by Oracle in 2012:
1. What is your definition of a successful campaign?
Since you are dealing with an emerging business model and a short track record, it is vital that you understand how they view success. First, in order to verify that they have a success-oriented plan and are not just jumping on a money-making bandwagon, and second, to ensure that their vision aligns with your company's vision. There are far too many crash-and-burn stories that should have been successes had it not been for a poorly aligned or non-existent vision for a company.
2. If you had unlimited resources and budget, which social marketing outlets would you concentrate on for my business?
This strips away the money talk to get to the meat of the matter: Do they know what they are doing? When restrictions are removed, even for the sake of discussion only, creative solutions are allowed to flow more freely. This question will immediately weed out the bandwagoneers, who will in lockstep answer "Facebook" with some "Twitter" thrown in for good measure.
If they don't discuss Pinterest, LinkedIn, or Google+ with you at a minimum, run away. 'Bob's Facebook and Twitter Marketing' franchises have popped up on every corner, and you'd be better off doing it yourself than hiring one of them.
3. As my agency, are there people you can influence to get more traction for my brand?
In other words, who do they know? If you have a new tech device it would be awesome if they had some rapport with a Walt Mossberg or Robert Scoble type. What influencers can they leverage for exposure?
This question can also open up a discussion about their understanding of social influence and 'net cred'.
4. What do you see changing most in the next two quarters?
It's highly unlikely that there will be any plateaus reached in the social media world for the next few years at a minimum, between Google's algorithm changes, Facebook's rules about organic reach, and the various other disruptions that occur with increasing frequency.
Do they know the differences between Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird? What is their philosophy on SEO, content marketing, post length, etc.? Do they have a plan for adapting or are they reacting to what is changed on the fly? Do they even know anything has changed?
5. How will you measure my success?
ROI is everything. An investment is inherently made for the purposes of yielding a return, and without a measurable return all investments are meaningless and costly. This is the most important of the questions you should ask any agency, because the wrong answer here impacts every other aspect directly.
They need to know what they are measuring, how they are measuring it, and how it can be quantified for you and analyzed in a P/L statement. Anything short of this and you are simply throwing your money away. Social media has a "touchy-feely" quality to it that makes it easy to forget that it's business, but it is. Don't let this part of your business be run any more recklessly than you would any other.
6. Where can I see your own marketing efforts?
You can ask for references and success stories all day long, and you should, but if you really want to see who you're talking to then look at how they market themselves. Look at their Facebook page, Google+ page, Twitter account, LinkedIn profile, and Pinterest boards. Ask if they maintain a blog on their site. If they don't put much effort into practicing their stated art for their own sake, don't count on them doing much for you either.
You want to double your followers? Ask them how their following has grown and at what pace? If they are really good at what they do, they should be rocking the social web. If a Google search on them gets you zilch, you're on your own. It may be that they are geniuses just getting started, but you'll have to make that decision based on their knowledge and plans if there isn't any empirical data.
Don't be scared to hire an agency if you don't have the internal resources to handle the job, but make sure that you run them through at least an interview process before you hand over an important piece of your business to them.