Can marketing agencies evolve into social?

The other day I read a great blog entry over on Mediapost that talks about how “The Future Agency of Record Will Be Social.” In it, Joe Marchese of Socialvibe opines:

There is a quiet battle raging in the advertising industry over who will become the Agency of Record (AOR) for marketers’ social media efforts. With traditional media for delivering advertising declining in reach and effectiveness, and an even greater call for advertising efficiency in a down economy, becoming a marketer’s social media AOR can be a huge win and provide a map to a much-needed new business model and revenue stream for agencies.

Later in the article, Joe gets into how basically every possible classification of agency (from PR to Media to Interactive) could potentially evolve into the coveted role as the social media AOR. But by doing this potato-evolutionhe more or less makes the point that every agency will have to evolve to keep their seat at the table, because the social web is changing how every marketing discipline is practiced. But what does it mean to evolve? How does an agency’s DNA need to change to grab the social media brass ring?

I joined Powered a little over a year ago from an interactive agency in Chicago. In that move, I got to transition from one company whose focus is on more traditional (though sophisticated), online programs (corporate/brand web presence, relationship marketing/CRM programs, campaign sites) to another whose focus is social marketing (branded communities).

The transition opened my eyes to some of the evolutionary differences that Joe is surfacing in his article, albeit solely within the interactive marketing space. (Perhaps others can speak to other areas like PR/Media in the comments?) The surprising thing is that although both my current and past company fundamentally build websites – requiring strategy, design, content, front/back end development, project management, and maintenance – they are strikingly, fundamentally different.

Creative Differences

The first major difference is within the creative teams of the respective organizations. Creative within a typical interactive agency is highly focused on elegant visual design. The primary goal is to catch the eye, connect to the user on an emotional level, and engage and convert them with inventive content. Most creative teams in agencies focus on hiring rock-star interactive designers, videographers, and creative writers. The social marketing provider creative teams are far less focused on visual design, and more on delivering content in an approachable way that taps into what users care about and starts conversations. Learning is a key aspect of good community content. Social marketers hire creative people who are rock-stars in journalism, education, and instructional design. Of course, I’m not saying an agency can’t produce content for a community any more than I’m saying a social marketing provider can’t produce content for a campaign site – it’s really more a matter of emphasis in the creative skill set.

Technology Lockdown

The more an interactive program stops looking like a website and starts looking like an application, the more opportunity there is for leveraging a reusable technology platform. Many agencies, especially those who deploy lots of relationship marketing or CRM programs, have developed simple platforms to enable the quick development and deployment of those efforts. In my last agency, we had a relationship marketing platform that we even branded “Backstage.” However, online communities are far more complicated from a technological standpoint and really have to be treated like a product in order for the technology to work reliably. For that reason, a social marketing provider is likely to have a much larger engineering staff (typically with separate product and implementation roles) and an enhanced competency around product management and development.

Experts who Talk, Experts who Listen

The added complexity of an in-market online community is also the reason for additional operational staff to support the effort. There are two roles here that will be atypical in a standard interactive agency. The first is the operations people who are there to watch over a community to make sure user-generated content is moderated and to enhance the experience by corralling resources to interact with users in real time. The second is a social analytics expert who not only understands typical web analysis and data mining, but also gets how to watch, measure, and mine UGC. These roles have to cooperate tightly with the strategic account manager (who also needs to have experience in planning community) to adapt and close the loop quickly as they learn – community members are far less patient than those who are participating in an email campaign.

Must we evolve?

So will interactive agencies choose to evolve into social marketing providers? And even if they choose – can they?

I think all agencies will need to evolve, so the choice is just a matter of timing. And I do think agencies can negotiate the pathway to social – in three different ways. First, I think the larger agencies will likely acquire social marketing providers who were born that way, integrating their capabilities and becoming instant players. Second, other smaller agencies will likely focus on campaign-oriented social media and interactive work (Facebook apps, Mobile apps, Twitter build-outs, UGC campaign sites), choosing to farm out communities to partners. Finally, still other agencies, small and large, might change tack and try to re-invent themselves as social marketing providers.

It’s this last pathway that presents the most danger, but recognizing that community is not just a new type of marketing program – but a new way of approaching marketing and a new organization to support it – is the first step to getting there.

This post is cross-posted over on Powered‘s blog, The Engaged Consumer.

Photo Credit: Originally Uploaded by Narly


One thought on “Can marketing agencies evolve into social?

  1. Doug – great post. I’m going to leave a similar comment over on our blog.

    Having worked at and with several different agencies over the years, I couldn’t agree more. Today’s AOR’s continue to deliver the goods across traditional media and marketing as well as in newer channels like interactive, SEM and now social. However, to your point, I’ve talked to the heads of social media at a few of the large agencies and they have no interest in providing things like a platform and moderation/community management. They also — self admittedly — don’t traditionally keep UI designers on staff that are experts in branded community design (note: there are some that do so I’m not over generalizing on that last point).

    It will be interesting to see how the evolution transpires over the next few years. One possible outcome could be the rolling up of strategic groups focused on social like Crayon and New Marketing Labs with a white label provider like Awareness or Jive into some of the larger agency conglomerates like WPP. At the end of the day though, we’ll just have to wait and see!

    Aaron | @aaronstrout

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