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Andrew Cherwenka

Andrew Cherwenka

Posted: November 2, 2009 08:27 PM

The Problem With Social Media Agencies

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The interactive marketing business has gone through some constructive battles in its first 10 years.  Here are the big three and what they mean to marketers and agencies today.

Interactive vs Traditional: Earning a Seat at the Table

Since the early days of internet marketing in the ‘90s, traditional advertising agencies – those plying their trade in television, print or radio - railed against the web as a viable medium.  Just one year ago they were still adamantly saying it wasn’t an effective platform on which to build brands or deliver emotional content.  In 2008 the battle began to subside.  Brands voted with their budgets, consumers responded with their attention, and interactive agencies earned their rightful seat at the table.

Instead of passively watching their billings divert toward web, traditional ad agencies lined up beside the enemy.  They began building their interactive capabilities and adopted a “fake it ‘till you make it” philosophy along the way, but the cost of entry was (and still is) steep.  Hiring all required areas – application developers, web developers, designers, QA, usability experts, analytics, SEO, strategists, project managers, account managers – and getting them working together took more than just money.  It will be another few years before we see the best traditional shops gain their footing in digital but one thing was clear after that first battle ended:  interactive marketing had earned its stripes.

Then along came social media.

Social Media Specialists vs Full-Service Interactive

You would be right to ask “social what?”  The internet is intrinsically social.  It always has been.  Social media existed in the ‘80s with email and in the ‘90s with discussion forums.  The web was created as a platform for sharing and networking.  It continues to evolve today as Facebook houses 300 million members to become the web’s 4th largest site, YouTube serves 1 billion videos daily, and Twitter goes mainstream.

Enabling interaction has always been the goal of the internet.  The key difference today is the number of tools, touchpoints and connections we can leverage.  The term “social media” caught on quickly to describe a more participative, shareable web and social media consultants sprung up overnight.

As consultants, their core offer is typically a strategic roadmap on how to tap into social graphs and viral expansion loops (you tell 3 friends, they tell 3 friends…).  The problem is, social media and the broader field of interactive marketing are inseparable.  When social media consultants without technical or creative depth hand their instructions over to the brand, their advice may not be executable.  The result is often a mini Stonehenge.  Successful online initiatives require the synergistic interaction between 3 core competencies:

  • Technology – to define the sandbox we play in
  • Creative – to fill the sandbox with the right toys
  • Strategy – to connect the people and other sandboxes

Brands are increasingly insisting that all 3 of these competencies work under the same roof as an integrated team.  Smart social media agencies who realize their pipelines are in jeopardy are staffing up and deepening their capabilities to comply.

So does that mean established digital shops get the full-service initiatives in the meantime?

Interactive vs Interactive:  Staying Ahead

Not necessarily.  Not all full-service interactive agencies have kept up with the rapid shift toward web-wide sharing and participation.  Opening themselves up to the idea of content creation from communities across the web is a significant shift away from what was once a tightly controlled message coming from a central website.

To some, their social media checklist involves bolting on a few share tools to the site, setting up a Facebook Page, and getting started on Twitter.  But brands are insisting on more thorough digital visions and online engagement strategies.  Leading-edge interactive agencies must be fully versed in eCRM, email marketing, RSS feeds, contest management platforms … the list is constantly evolving.

Just as we eventually dropped the “portable” in portable laptop, we may soon drop the “social” in social media.  The buzzword may die but the opportunities to engage brands with consumers across all digital touchpoints and devices will continue to expand.  Who will benefit?  Brands and consumers will, of course, as will the interactive marketing agencies sharp enough to stay ahead of the pack.


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